Phil arrives home in a cab, a home he no longer recognizes as his own. He’s been in hospital, had a stroke, lost his memory. He doesn’t know where home is or who he is, but luckily Millie knocks on his door the next day to remind him. She’s his boss’s daughter. She brings him to work, shows him around, lists his likes and dislikes, and informs him they were (are) secret lovers. Their chemistry is undeniable, his hands seem accustomed to the work, his mattress conforms to his body, yet there’s a dog he can’t account for, and his memory remains slow to return.
Furthermore, Phil (writer-director Bouli Lanners) is a foreigner, a Belgian farmhand working on a remote Scottish island. Why is he so far from home? Why isn’t his family looking for him? His strangeness makes him seem more vulnerable, a crack in his gruff exterior. Millie (Michelle Fairley) enjoys a prominent seat in the island’s social hierarchy but is shy and reserved. They make a complementary pair as they navigate the losses due to his amnesia, and the minefield of memory as it returns. The real secret waiting to be unlocked isn’t that they were lovers, but that they never were. Millie has simply taken advantage of this unique situation to make something happen that neither had the courage to do beforehand.
Their relationship, and his footing in the community, becomes a story of identity. Who Phil is depends on who he’s with, who that person perceives him to be, wishes him to be, which side of himself he revealed to them, what they remember, what they value, what they project onto him. It’s like he’s a slightly different person to everyone he encounters, which makes assimilating his personality a difficult task. Without memory, we rely on other people’s stories to make sense of who we are. The stories Phil is told about himself vary, and some are flat-out made up. Who is he deep inside, regardless of these stories? Time would tell, if only Phil had much of it.
Nobody Has to Know is a small and gentle film that took me by surprise. It’s tender and beautiful to behold, well-acted, well-told, well-considered. Although it must be terrifying to depend on others to learn about oneself, director Lanners acknowledges that a beautiful Scottish backdrop always makes things better. The island’s remoteness gives us a sense of Phil’s isolation, his urge to hide, but also his his appreciation for beauty. You’ll find yourself wondering just how well you would fare should you wake up tomorrow in a room you don’t recognize, in a home that feels alien. How to re-assemble your ‘self’? Where to find the truth, who to trust to tell it, how to treat the things that don’t feel authentic. And let’s not forget that Phil is also in the throes of romance, either one rekindled or ignited for the first time, but either way mired in history and context that he doesn’t know. If your hands and mouth and heart say yes, is that enough, or should you wait for your brain to catch up?
Watch Phil pick up the pieces in this quiet and gentle film; Nobody Has to Know premiered at TIFF and heads to the Chicago Film Festival October 15 before its December release.