Illegal derives its strength as a feminist picture rather than from its nominal interest in human-rights issues for illegal immigrants. Writer-director Olivier Masset-Depasse doesn’t provide us any reason for the film’s main character, Tania (Anne Coesens), to live in Belgium, nor are there any signifiers of an ugly past. We are expected to take her, and the other female characters, at face value and accept that they must have their reasons for leaving their homeland, but a less problematic way of seeing the characters are simply as struggling women living in a man’s world.
This view of the film washes away the story’s shortcomings and gives us reason to understand Tania and root for her survival. If we were to believe that Tania came to Belgium because she taught French in Russia, the only detail we are given of her life there, and an indication that she was employed and educated, then the film’s credulity would weaken its premise. Tania seems to know just this when she explains to her friend what she thinks of the Belgium government’s stance: “For them, Belarus is a dictatorship. They’ll never send you back. Unlike me and Russia. You’ll get papers. I won’t risk it.”
The plot of Illegal is thin yet thick enough to get its points across: Through the story of Tania’s capture by police and subsequent imprisonment, in which she gets separated from her son, Ivan (Alexandre Gontcharov), the idea that the life of illegal immigrants is one of suffering and strife, is clear. The visuals of the film, bleakly blue and gray, are as bare as a prison cell. During a scene after Tania gets a letter stating a denial for permanent residence, she gets drunk and burns her fingerprints off with an iron while the camera hides behind some furniture, one of only two heavy-handed visual attempts, in a rather visually monotone film, to convey meaning.
Masset-Depasse sympathizes with women (his last movie Cages is about a woman who loses her ability to speak after a car accident and whose lover subsequently decides to leave her), and in Illegal the only characters who offer solace are women, who are, inversely, frequently the victims of more one-dimensional characters, men. In this sense, men are what keeps Tania from her son Ivan, who notably is also fatherless, and are what she must overcome—in contrast to all the women who offer help along the way. This is likely the key to understanding Masset-Depasse’s thinking, and it also the likeliest reason why Tania left Russia as it is the reason she’s having problems in Belgium.
Since Belgium is one of the more lenient countries on illegal immigration, recently offering citizenship to over 25,000 illegals while France and Italy tightened their border control, the film’s clear ideas on human rights issues, though commendable, can sometimes seem superfluous, but as a movie about the treatment of women, here a woman who just happens to be an illegal immigrant, it flows better and its lack of background works in its favor. Ultimately, you’re hoping that Tania and Ivan get reunited as a mother and son, and because of this, their identity as illegal immigrants is merely circumstantial.