For the Dardennes, their home town of Seraing is much like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County – a mythographic setting as much as an actual location. As a backdrop for the dispossessed of Belgium, Seraing takes on strange powers, crushing the spirit in some ways, but also providing unexpected lines of flight in others. Tori and Lokita, the Dardennes’ latest film, dramatises this dual identity of Seraing in a particularly pointed manner, partly because it’s one of their few films to involve a sustained sequence that takes place outside the city. Like Young Ahmed, it deals with Seraing from the perspective of foreign outsiders – this time the titular Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Joely Mbundu), a pair of West African refugees. Tori, a persecuted sorcerer child, already has his papers, so he’s struggling to do the same for Lokita, the woman who saved him from execution in his home village. Since that’s not enough to grant Lokita her papers, the two are trying to convince authorities that Lokita is Tori’s sister, and preparing for an upcoming interview for residency.
Over the last decade, the Dardennes have gradually moved away from the workplace dramas and depictions of industrial poverty that characterised their classic era. That’s not to say that they’re any less focused on the dispossessed, but that their films tend towards a more dispersed and insidious form of exploitation that can no longer be linked to one factory, boss or government policy. Even as it’s more diffuse, this new networked exploitation also feels more sadistic – or at least its sadistic gestures can be more surprising, because they’re no longer couched in a transparent system of subjugation. Tori and Lokita spend most of their time following the whims of a local pizza chef, who organises drug drops, coerces Lokita into performing sexual favours for money, and appears to be enmeshed in organised crime, although what kind or degree is unclear. At the same time, Lokita is indebted to the African smuggler who brought her to Belgium, and who regularly appears to remind her of her dues.
However, this more dispersed exploitation also has a flipside, since it gives Seraing a new volatility, and in doing so reiterates it as both the prison and the line of flight in the Dardennes’ body of work. For while Seraing is undoubtedly a site of subjugation for the Dardennes, they also invest it with a mystical core, a propulsive power, that has the capacity to carry their characters somewhere else so long as they manage to lean into its mystical slipstream. That’s not exactly to say that Seraing is beneficent, or can offer any real alternative to exploitation, but that its sheer energy provides a series of vortical corridors that momentarily allow the dispossessed to find a mobility in entrapment, a way of hiding in plain sight. For the first act, Tori and Lokita lean into these corridors, which are nearly always associated with mass transit, and scored to the omnipresent white noise of traffic. As they move from one drug drop to another, and traverse the connective tissue of the city, we glimpse the prototypical vortices of the Dardennes’ Seraing: massive voids surrounded by automobile infrastructure, whether in the form of highway interchanges, looming overpasses or expansive mass transport hubs.
All these vortices gather and funnel the cosmic wind tunnels that, in the Dardennes’ mythography, produce this qualified mobility in the midst of exploitation. However, there’s also a new sense that this mystical core of Seraing has started to lose its propulsive pull. While Tori and Lokita might be surrounded by cars, they’re unable to jack into the slipsteam of the city quite as efficiently as some of their forebears, even as their status as immigrants (in Lokita’s case, without papers) makes those wind corridors even more volatile and urgent as well. The first time Lokita gets into a car, it’s a parked car that her smuggler uses to threaten her into giving him all of her pay. Similarly, even when Tori tries to lean into the flow of the city, it makes him vulnerable, starting with a pair of police officers who call him up for running across the road too rapidly. Later on, he becomes another of the Dardennes’ kids on bikes, but his first plosive trajectory is quickly halted by the same smuggler, again in a parked car.
Such aborted trajectories all mark a shift, in the Dardennes’ work, from a vision of Seraing as industrial sublime to a more post-industrial metropolis. This city is no less exploitative, but more adept at concealing its exploitation, by removing those cavernous public spheres, those yawning corridors of subjugated spacetime, that offered a momentary flight from (or flight within) the city in its classical industrial incarnation. Accordingly, Tori and Lokita is one of the first films in the Dardennes’ body of work where we leave Seraing for a sustained period of time, and the film that differentiates most drastically between Seraing and the world outside. This departure starts when Lokita resorts to an organised crime syndicate (only glimpsed briefly through the pizza chef as an intermediary) who agree to provide her with fake papers, but on the condition she work at a drug dealing operation beyond the fringes of the city. In the longest car ride of the film, she is blindfolded and placed in the back of a vehicle whose driver condenses all the propulsive power of old Seraing to a coldly blistering techno mixtape.
When Lokita’s blindfold is taken off, she’s in a world that is as different from Seraing as Seraing itself was from West Africa. Gone are the vortical corridors of the city, and in their place is a self-contained dystopia of concrete cubes, makeshift building equipment, and 30-degree rooms filled with marijuana crops. This produces a very different feeling from the Dardennes’ other films – dank, humid and almost tropical, like a horrific and exploitative refraction of West Africa itself through the lens of post-industrial exploitation. In contrast to the bone-chilling yet bracing flows of Seraing, there’s not the slightest hint of a breeze here, to the extent that Lokita’s main job is maintaining an artificial air flow by keeping the fans in check. Light years from the cold corridors of Seraing, heat is now the issue – her minder constantly reminds her to dress light, and goes through the protocol for dealing with a fire several times.
Rather than exploring the dialectic between industrial subjugation and industrial sublimity, as occurs in so many of the Dardennes’ previous films, Tori and Lokita thus tries to wrestle a more visible mode of industrial exploitation back from this strange post-industrial post-space. To achieve this, Lokita resorts to one of the Dardennes’ most primal postures – falling to the ground, hugging the floor, as if searching inchoately for that industrial base. Yet this is no longer sufficient, meaning the burden falls on Tori, the sorcerer child, to restore the oblique magic at the heart of the industrial metropolis. To that end, Tori gathers the circuitous energy of Seraing into a series of paintings for Lokita, which he cycles around the city (opening up some of the most expansive establishing-shots in the process) as the camera follows suit, becoming jerkier and faster until Tori has enough momentum to sustain the most autonomous driving scene for either protagonist so far: taking a bus to where Lokita is kept.
Once Tori arrives (having initially followed Lokita’s captors by bicycle), we see the outside of Lokita’s compound for the first time. Inside, it’s impossible to get any sense of the structure, but from a distance it’s clearly an industrial warehouse, like any other in Seraing. Not only does Tori make his way from this industrial exterior to the post-industrial interior, but he does so by restoring the primal slipsteam of Seraing, since his main ingress is through the air duct, which takes him through a series of interstitial spaces to one of the aircon units, where he first makes contact again with Lokita. Traversing the connective tissue between industrial and post-industrial exploitation while simultaneously restoring the cosmic wind corridors of Seraing by linking the air duct with the air con unit, Tori’s trajectory provides both him and Lokita with one final injection of propulsion.
This takes them beyond the warehouse, and onto higher ground, where they ascend far enough to glimpse the wider industrial landscape, full of factories dotting the valleys and peaks. To lean back into that slipstream, they need to return to the mystical-automobile white noise of Seraing, whose nearest point of connection turns out to be a two-lane road through an adjoining wood. That cosmic flow has never been more precarious for the Dardennes’ than it is now – the first driver stops for Lokita, and offers to drive her to hospital (she’s injured her foot) but speeds away when she goes back to get Tori; the second driver turns out to be one of the drug dealers, who chases down Lokita, shoots her in the head, and leaves her corpse for Tori to discover. This may be the most brutally violent ending in the Dardennes’ oeuvre, couched in the most bucolic landscape. Seraing might have been beautified, but that just enhances its brutality, which now doubles down on the dispossessed, especially those who come from far away – a city confident in its ability to normalise horror as efficiently as Tori does in Lokita’s closing eulogy: “Lokita, if you had your papers, you would have become a home help, and we would have lived together in Belgium. Now you are dead and I am alone.”