‘Julie Keeps Quiet’ Review: Riveting Debut From Belgium Exposes the Ruptured Relationship Between a Teenage Tennis Star and Her Coach

Belgian director Leonardo Van Dijl’s assured debut feature, Julie Keeps Quiet, builds a riveting psychological drama around the choice of a star player from an elite youth tennis academy not to speak up in the wake of tragedy. In her first acting role, young tennis ace Tessa Van den Broeck internalizes the title character’s brooding unease with slow-burn intensity. The movie’s silence is so loaded with the anxiety, obstinance, inchoate anger and desire for anonymity of the traumatized teenage sportswoman that the constant thwack of her racquet hitting the ball cuts through the tension like violent shocks.

Unfolding predominantly in static frames that keep the story laser-focused, with pinpoint use of American contemporary classical composer Caroline Shaw’s needling vocal score, this is an austerely effective work. It has a kinship with Laura Wandel’s Playground from 2021 and last year’s The Teachers’ Lounge by İlker Çatak, all three films centered on characters in emotionally fraught situations within the bubble of school systems.

Julie Keeps Quiet

The Bottom Line

Silence speaks volumes.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week)
Cast: Tessa Van den Broeck, Laurent Caron, Claire Bodson, Koen De Bouw, Pierre Gervais, Ruth Becquart
Director: Leonardo Van Dijl
Screenwriters: Leonardo Van Dijl, Ruth Becquart

1 hour 43 minutes

The Dardenne Brothers served as co-producers and there are faint echoes of their stripped-down narratives and rigorously naturalistic performances from a sturdy ensemble in which the teenage characters are played by nonprofessionals. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis shoots the film with what appears to be natural light wherever possible, meaning Julie is often enveloped in shadow.

The deftly honed screenplay by Van Dijl and Ruth Becquart (who also appears as Julie’s mother) thrusts us with zero exposition right into the thick of the raw nerves and heightened vigilance of the academy’s staff and students. Questions swirl around the unexplained absence of Julie’s coach, Jeremy (Laurent Caron), but she resists every solicitation to get her to open up.

Already something of an outsider given that she’s a scholarship player subsidized by the tuition fees of rich kids, Julie becomes more guarded as she parses — or buries? — her complicated feelings about recent events. Chief among them is the suicide of Aline, a 16-year-old academy member also coached by Jeremy, seen projecting sunny self-confidence in a video about her hopes to join the Belgian Tennis Federation. While preparing for her own upcoming BTF trials, Julie rewatches that video obsessively.

The head of the academy, Sophie (Claire Bodson), informs the students that outside mediators are being brought in to launch an internal investigation and conduct interviews, in the aim of promoting more open dialogue and fostering a safe environment. But the organization’s staff also appear to be treading cautiously, wary of being implicated should major transgressions come to light.

That seems increasingly likely once word gets out that Jeremy has been suspended, and while Julie initially remains in contact with him by phone, she keeps those conversations to herself.

Van den Broeck plays Julie’s silence not as a weak choice but one requiring considerable strength. It’s clear from early on that lines have been crossed and that she’s recalibrating views on her own recent experience in light of Aline’s death. Her teachers and parents are concerned about her grades slipping, but she insists that she’s fine.

One of the strengths of Van Dijl’s film is that it also keeps quiet about what happened, even if it’s indicated unequivocally in Jeremy’s sole scene, when he meets up with Julie in a café to talk. That unsettling encounter is effectively shot in low light, with the two characters almost in silhouette.

The murky areas of the player-coach dynamic are fertile terrain for thorny drama, which is paradoxically amplified because Julie’s lips remain sealed. The fact that first Aline and then Julie were pushed forward as star talent and given solo training sessions with Jeremy suggests that in prioritizing the potential for academy players to break into professional tennis, the institution was lax in its supervisory role.

In short, punchy scenes played out with unerring restraint, the movie observes Julie practicing her serves, doing physical therapy for an injury or working out at the gym, all of which point to her using sport as a coping mechanism.

She listens to Jeremy’s skepticism about her replacement coach, Backie (Pierre Gervais), but she learns to work with him — perhaps in a healthier way. And she gradually makes friends among the other girls, coming out of her shell to a degree while remaining taciturn whenever the conversation turns to her former coach.

Most filmmakers would have pushed the character to a breaking point at which she spills out her secrets. But Julie’s firm position seems non-negotiable. While she appears on the verge of speaking up at several points, she draws a quiet power from her resolve, refusing to let trauma define her or derail her tennis career.

It’s conceivable the movie might chafe with people who believe all women have a responsibility to expose their abusers. But Van Dijl and Becquart’s script is smart enough to know that adolescence is a turbulent time, and while Julie remains conflicted and vulnerable, silence for her becomes about self-preservation. Whether or not that will remain the case is open to interpretation.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week)
Production companies: De Wereldvrede, in association with Hobab, Les Films du Fleuve
Cast: Tessa Van den Broeck, Laurent Caron, Claire Bodson, Koen De Bouw, Pierre Gervais, Ruth Becquart, Grace Biot, Alyssa Lorette
Director: Leonardo Van Dijl
Screenwriters: Leonardo Van Dijl, Ruth Becquart
Producers: Gilles De Schryver, Gilles Coulier, Wouter Sap, Roxanne Sarkozi
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Julien Denis
Costume designer: Ellen Blereau
Music: Caroline Shaw
Editor: Bert Jacobs
Sound designer: Boris Debackere
Casting: Sien Josephine Teijssen
Sales: New Europe Film Sales

1 hour 43 minutes

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