The Treatment (De Behandeling) (2015)

First published by Sight & Sound, June 2015

De BehandelingSynopsis: Antwerp, Belgium. A figure known to local children as the troll has imprisoned the Simons in their own home for days and, when interrupted, stolen off into a woodland park with their young son Robin. Robin’s corpse is found up a tree, bearing semen from his reticent father Alex, and bite marks from someone else. Chief Inspector Nick Cafmeyer suspects a connection with Ivan Plettinckx, chief suspect in the disappearance of Nick’s own younger brother Bjorn 25 years earlier. Breaking into Plettincx’s house just as the old man hangs himself, Nick finds a cache of videotapes showing young Bjorn’s abuse by a paedophile ring. A woman’s tattoo glimpsed on a videotape leads Nick to Nancy Lammers, who offers information in exchange for payment and the incriminating videotapes. Meanwhile Chris Gommaer reluctantly comes forward as a witness, revealing that years earlier he was similarly forced by the troll to sodomise his own son. Nancy ties up Bjorn, alive but brain-damaged, in a caravan, but before she can hand him to Nick, she is arrested by Nick’s colleague Danni. Nick tracks and violently arrests the troll, an impotent, delusional loner. Bjorn remains undiscovered.

Review: Idyllic, slow-motion images show two little boys playing by a woodland railway track, while a voiceover reads letters that outline conflicting, equally abominable accounts of the younger boy’s subsequent fate.

The opening sequence of Hans Herbots’ harrowing police procedural The Treatment (De Behandeling) visually tracks the thin line that runs between past and present, between Edenic childhood and its bitter end. The voice belongs to Ivan Plettinckx (Johan van Assche), a local paedophile and chief suspect in the abduction and disappearance of young Bjorn Cafmayer; 25 years on, Plettinckx still taunts Bjorn’s older brother Nick (Geert van Rampelberg) with letters about the unsolved crime. Now a driven, haunted chief inspector unable to move on from the loss of his brother, Nick discerns in his investigation of a bizarre new paedophile case (whose male survivors are too ashamed to speak of the horrific choices that they have had to make) a possible connection to a cold case and his own past. Caught between then and now, Nick races forwards to exorcise the ghosts behind him, but tragically struggles to see the wood for the trees.

Like those contradictory letters that Plettincx sends to Nick, several clashing matrices vie to frame the narrative of The Treatment. The tree-climbing, family-abducting, child-biting perpetrator at the centre of the film has come to be mythologised by local children as ‘the troll’, aligning the film to a modern fairytale (set, no less, in deep, dark woods). Conversely, the story has been adapted quite closely (by Carl Joos) from Mo Hayder’s second DI Jack Caffery novel The Treatment (2002), and to a lesser degree from that novel’s predecessor Birdman (2000). Yet if the model for Hayder’s brand of detective fiction is sickening excess of the kind popularised by Thomas Harris in his Hannibal Lecter novels, then the sensationalism inherent in the story of The Treatment is greatly tempered by two other influences. Firstly, having previously directed the Swedish co-production The Spiral (2012) for television, Herbots infects The Treatment with a brooding sensibility and sombre lyricism reminiscent of ‘Nordic noir’: the lighting is subdued, the presentation restrained, and unimaginable acts are left precisely to the imagination, while their aftereffects, rippling through time, are not forgotten. Secondly, in transposing the events of Hayder’s novels from England to Belgium, Joos also assimilates these imported materials to domestic realities, with several details from the true crimes of Belgium’s most notorious paedophile Marc Dutroux casting their long shadow over events here (especially the human cages, and the dehydration/starvation of captives while their abductor is otherwise engaged). This is a confronting resonance for a nation still stinging from the collective shame of how long it took to arrest and convict a murderous paedophile in its midst.

Indeed, despite the unconscionable acts that Nick uncovers, shame, rather than shock, is key to The Treatment: Nick’s shame at his inability to find, let alone save, his baby brother; the shame of paralysis or even complicity experienced by the troll’s adult victims; and the troll’s own shame at his condition. If Nick finally learns to let go of Bjorn and turn his back on the past, a bleak coda, deviating from Hayder’s books but uncomfortably matching the actualities of the Dutroux case, suggests the high cost of Nick’s own self-chosen treatment. The opening vision of Paradise is forever lost.

Anton Bitel