Left Bank (Pieter Van Hees, 2008)
LEFT BANK is an area of Antwerp steeped in mystery and myth, legends from the middle ages have cursed the area and provided the city, and its inhabitants, with a reputation that is anything but favourable; but it sure-as-shit offers filmmakers the chance of exploiting the myths and legends in terms of creating an unsettling and creepy movie. Genre enthusiast, Pieter Van Hess, has done just that with his feature debut.
LEFT BANK tells the story of Marie (Eline Kuppens), a track-and-field star in the making. Due to an unfortunate illness she is forced to semi-retire from her chosen career, but things aren’t all doom and gloom for Marie as she has just met Bobby (Mattias Scheonaerts), a handsome archer who is attracted to the young athlete. The relationship progresses quickly and Marie finds herself living with Bobby, one day a letter arrives for the previous inhabitant; neighbours inform her that the previous occupant disappeared without a trace a month before Bobby moved into the property.
With nothing but time and an interest in the previous tenant, Marie sets out to find the truth behind her disappearance, she contacts the missing girl’s boyfriend, Dirk (Tom De Wispelaere) and he informs her of Left Banks background and the myths surrounding women in that area and the level of missing women around Left Bank. As Marie’s search intensifies, she begins to suffer regular bouts of sickness, hallucinations and sooty discharge from her nether region; which are all indicators that she could be the next girl to go missing if the legends are to be believed…
LEFT BANK is thoroughly European in its aesthetics; it belongs to the current trend in Euro Art-horror that sees films like TWNETY-NINE PALMS, IN MY SKIN and THE ORDEAL all creating a disquieting viewing experience. Its sombre approach to genre cinema can be alienating, but the creators have woven such an engaging story that despite its slow execution is compulsive entertainment. Watching Marie gradual unravel the mystery behind, initially, the previous tenant is fascinating as she too starts to unravel. Twists abound and a bigger puzzle is discovered, one in which answers aren’t going to be easily unlocked.
Eline Kuppens delivers a tour-de-force performance here. It’s a tough role, one which sees her in the buff as often as she’s in running shorts, she gives us a fearless performance of a woman on the cusp of losing everything she has worked towards in life; it’s this damage that helps us warm to her – initially she comes across as cold, but when faced with this devastation she never lets her spirit fade. For an unknown actress this is an assured performance that will hopefully lead to more work. Van Hess has so much belief in his young actress; she’s in almost every frame of the movie, which wears off on the viewer and imagining another actress in the role is impossible.
Van Hess’ direction is also admirable, his camera observes his characters; often from a distance as he refuses to intrude on the story. His ability to create discomfort, from atmosphere alone, marks him out as one to watch in future. As sexual as the film is, he’s handled the material with a level of maturity that assures the audience that he’s not trying to titillate, but to add realism to the story; sex and nudity are a part of life, and that exactly how it comes across here. The final shock to the system is the way in which he deals with the vague, almost pedestrian unravelling of the story. There are no action-packed set-pieces that lead us to the truth, just simple devices such as a neighbour dropping off a box. It’s to Van Hess’ credit again that this doesn’t bore, but intrigues the audience.
Those who aren’t willing to be absorbed into the film will have issues with it; it’s a slow-paced little burner and one that refuses to play by the rules of genre cinema. It’s as if Roman Polanski moved to Japan and made his own variation on the J-horror genre; with added vaginal soot. It contains one of the finest climaxes to a horror film in years and is sure to generate a whole lot of debate once it’s more widely available. Those who have wanted a return to grown-up horror have had their prayers answered; LEFT BANK is one of 2009’s most refreshing titles and one which will see a whole lot of attention next year. Pieter Van Hess can proudly add himself to the short, but prestigious, list of talented Belgian directors; up there with veteran Harry Kúmel and current ‘it’ boy Fabrice Du Welz.
The R1 disc from IFC Films sports a lovely anamorphic presentation of the film. The film relies heavily on shadows and the levels of black are preserved well. The 5.1 mix is also of a high standard which is to be expected of a feature this new. Extras-wise we have 15 minutes of deleted scenes, which also include some amusing bloopers and we are treated to a horrific Americanised trailer too, which is best left alone.
LEFT BANK continues the trend of sombre, creepy arthouse horror films. Those who enjoyed this years’ equally brilliant VINYAN, from fellow Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz, will lap this up. The DVD is light on extra’s but the presentation does the film justice, expect to hear the name Pieter Van Hess more and more over the upcoming years – LEFT BANK smacks of a talent ready to explode.