Bouli Lanners’ Nobody Has to Know (2021) is a tender and touching love story, with a captivating premise that pulls on our heartstrings. After a stroke leaves Belgian émigré Phil (Lanners) with no memories from his past, he encounters Millie (Michelle Fairley), who entrusts him with the secret that they were in love.
It seems at times that our memory is our very soul, and the thought of losing our sense of identity and history, the memories we’ve shared with the person we love, is terrifying. Thus, we come to this film with expectations of a journey to discover whether love can triumph over tragedy. Lanners takes the premise and nurtures it, conveying humanity while challenging our preconceptions about truth. He celebrates how we can surprise one another, and the beauty of our emotional vulnerability when we rise above it.
Nobody Has to Know is written, directed, and performed with confidence. Omitting scenes that we’d expect to see infers a strong conviction. The director understands that a scene omitted can be powerful. Phil could suffer another stroke at any time, and leaving out scenes creates a sense of something missing for viewers. This decision does not come at the expense of the story or the character development; instead, it complements the fear for Phil’s wellbeing and the theme of loss.
A crisis arises when the reason for the film appears to lack direction or purpose. We worry that Lanners has led his story down the path of emotional self-indulgence. At this moment, a revelation gives the story its second life. It echoes Phil’s sentiment to Millie about having lived more than one life. This connection offers the storytelling a thoughtfulness, the narrative, always attentive to its characters, is not solely focused on structural concerns.
Set on the isolated Island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, we’re unsettled by Phil’s vulnerable health and the distance to the nearest hospital. Whether intentional or not, Lanners stirs thoughts about the necessity to make the most of the time we have and to not allow ourselves to be guided by fear or shoulder regret for inaction.
Phil and Millie are both guilty of inaction. They’ve denied themselves and lost time to enjoy the pleasure to love and to be loved. It’s easy to sympathise with them when most of us have some experience of being overwhelmed by our fear of making ourselves emotionally available. We should remember that we’re capable of surprising one another, and it’s possible to rise above our fear of vulnerability.
Nobody Has to Know’s humanity stems from the storyteller’s attention to the emotions that bind us all. From unrequited love and love lost, the awareness of our mortality, to the relationship between fathers and their sons, the film touches upon recognisable themes. Do storytellers prod at our vulnerabilities to tell compelling stories? Is Lanners revealing that storytelling can be an exploitative act? If the director is guilty of this, it’s a positive form of exploitation that reminds us that life is an inescapable balance between pleasure and anxiety.
Nobody Has to Know is a challenge to our preconceptions and our tendency to simplify ideas into sometimes adversarial camps. Lanners also speaks out about another concept similar to that in Fabrice du Welz’s Inexorable (2021), which also had its world premiere at TIFF 2021. This film tapped into the subject of a lie as a destructive force. Against the picturesque Scottish landscape, Nobody Has to Know offers a different perspective about a lie. As the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung wrote in his collected works, positive or negative action can yield a contradictory effect. A lie can be destructive, but as Lanners reminds us, lies can be life-giving, too. Lies can be, at times, a form of kindness.
The film provokes our emotions, but it’s also prodding at the vulnerabilities of the filmmakers and cast. Nobody Has to Know celebrates the beauty of living, and as storytelling has been gifted to do, offers a brief catharsis from the realities of fluctuating between our own stories of pleasure and anxiety.