Name of film: “FAIT D’HIVER” (“Gridlock”)
Director: Dirk Belien
Writer: Johan Verschueren
Year of production: 2001
Length: 7 minutes
Source: DVD 878 (nominee, 2003 75th annual Academy Awards for short film)
The payoff of this short film is huge, saturated as it is in its half-dozen minutes with sensational events set off by a trajectory that moves quickly from the mundane to the incredible. Events along this trajectory prove to be a progressive complication of the protagonist’s problems and a macabre, but somehow humorous, lesson in contrasts: By the end of “Fait d’Hiver” gridlock doesn’t seem so very unbearable.
The first scene opens with an appropriate but banal contrast of a snow-covered car and Beach Boys music, the one flouting the other. The music comes from the driver’s radio, which, once the camera cuts from an exterior shot of the car, wipers working, to an interior shot, updates the driver on the traffic situation. The update of the obvious only heightens the driver’s agitation, and he curses, and curses at the driver behind him who urges him with his horn to inch forward into the space that’s just opened up, and curses at the emergency vehicle that blares by in a flash of blue. This frustration and the driver’s popping of pills take up the first two minutes of the film and set the point of reference for the escalation of the protagonist’s problems from quotidian to incredible.
To remedy his boredom the driver grabs his cell phone from a newly opened package to test it. The camera cuts to a shot of a telephone sitting atop a chest of drawers. From behind the chest rises a little girl in response to the ring of the telephone. She hugs her doll and looks shyly at the phone, which induces her on the third ring to answer. “Hey, honey, it’s Daddy,” says the driver, and the relationship is set between the only two speaking actors in the film. A smile spreads across the girl’s face, and she moves to put her doll in its stroller as her father asks, “Is Mommy there?” Before she can answer the question the phone, which the six-year-old has been unknowingly pulling toward the edge of the chest of drawers, crashes to the floor, as if to signal the upcoming domestic crisis.
The driver, concerned from the noise of the phone’s fall, repeats his question in the flustered tone he’s used to curse gridlock. “Mommy’s upstairs in the bedroom with Uncle Wim,” she says. Cut to the driver’s gaping mouth which, in incredulity, turns into a stuttered laugh and then into the work of forming the words, “Uncle Wim? But we don’t have an Uncle Wim, sweetie.” The little girl confirms Uncle Wim’s existence and the fact that he is upstairs with Mommy. The driver’s shocked silence prompts the little girl to query, “Daddy?” The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of the driver’s mouth, just open as if preparing for breath to return. Instead of a breath, a gulp, and a favor: “Honey, I want you to do something for me . . .”
The little girl listens, and we see her listen though we hear nothing except, after a pause and a slow dolly back, “Yes, Daddy,” then she sets the phone on the table and starts her ascent of the stairs. Her steps are deliberate, even difficult, without hurry or alarm. This carriage will characterize the little girl throughout the remainder of the film, despite events, and will set the incredibility of the events in contrast to the calm of the girl’s reportage. Alarm and agitation we get from the driver, the adult, who ostensibly understands the weight of his daughter’s innocent report. He looks far into the distance, unaware of the traffic jam; he pops more pills; he rubs his head. His curse in response to more honking is half-hearted, perfunctory. The camera cuts from a shot of the concerned driver to another shot of the concerned driver to mark the passage of time.
Time has passed. We are about to find out how much. The next shot shows the little girl clumping down the last of the stairs, unhurried. She picks up the phone. The angle of the camera has not changed on either of these actors. Their individual expressions have also remained constant: his concern, her oblivion. “What happened,” the driver rushes to ask as soon as the little girl says, “Hello, Daddy.” Cut to a dolly toward the bedroom door. The little girl’s conversation with the driver is overlaid and the motion of the frames is slowed, perhaps to signal events that have already occurred, perhaps to underscore the drama. The first hint—and it is only a hint—of nondiegetic music drones in at a bass range of whole notes that match the slowed motion. “I went upstairs to the bedroom,” she begins, and the camera shows her leaning her ear into the door. Over her explanation comes the gasps and soprano of sexual climax. “. . . and knocked on the door like you asked me to.” The camera speed has not actually slowed, but instead has mirrored the little girl’s measured approach of the bedroom door. “Mommy,” she says after knocking. “I heard Daddy’s car. He’s home.”
Truncated orgasm follows this announcement and the door flies open to expose a naked woman holding an orange towel. As the little girl continues her retelling of the story the camera does slow to show a flustered woman look at her daughter and move past her into a room down the hall. The little girl reports the scene: “She came out of the bedroom, all naked.” And after the husband pushes her for more information (“And? And?”) a slow-motion shot of Uncle Wim rushing to put his blubber back under the cover of clothes comes into both our view and the girl’s view. She looks on unperturbed until she hears her mother’s scream and the thud of her body. Her figure struggles in slow motion to run toward the sound while her voice in the present calmly tells her father the story: “And she ran into the bathroom and fell on the floor.” Nondiegetic tympanis prepare the viewer for a dolly up to the image of a naked woman supine upon the bathroom tile. Her eyes are shock-open, unblinking. A stream of blood exits her mouth. The little girl kneels and looks upon her mother with nothing if not pity, and twirls a lock of her hair, as if in consolation if not understanding..
“And I think she’s dead,” says the little girl first about her mother and then, with a pronoun change, about Uncle Wim, who’s shock at the sight of the little girl next to her lifeless mother sends him careening out the second floor window and, spread eagle, into the swimming pool below, touched by a blanketing of big snowflakes in the leisure of fairy-tale falling. “Swimming pool? What swimming pool,” says the driver, whose look of agitation turns to one of horrified disbelief when he checks the number that he dialed with his new cell phone. “Holy shit.”
Cut to black, cue little girl’s voiceover: “Daddy?” Roll music for the credits: “You gave me the wrong telephone number . . .”
By mixing elements of the sensational (wife’s infidelity, husband’s coincidental phone call home, mother’s fall) with elements of the incredible (little girl’s calm retelling of events, Mother’s and Uncle’s unexpected deaths, the banal misdialing that starts it all off) the director has managed not only to provide a little perspective on life’s little problems but also to create a textbook perfect short film without the aid of the technical cutting edge (a la the animated winner, “The ChubbChubbs”) or overdetermined narrative development (cf. the winner of the live action short). In seven short minutes the director sets up the pattern of contrasts that leads to the shocking twist, while managing to keep the twist shocking by making it mundane. The “reveal” is big and satisfying because it takes the viewer simultaneously toward the climax of the incredible and back to the quotidian, while contrasting the protagonist’s (and our own) shock at the unquantifiable prospects of his misdialing with his relative relief that he in fact misdialed.