Pieter Van Hees calls his debut feature Left Bank the first part of his forthcoming ‘Anatomy of Love and Pain’ trilogy. That may sound a little trite to some, but thankfully this atmospheric Belgian thriller (released straight to DVD) is a cut above most of its mainstream rivals – both visually and intellectually – and should stand as an advertisement for a director with significant ability.
Stylistically it bears more similarity to an older generation of horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby that put an emphasis on atmosphere and ideas rather than grinding gore (a habit which Hollywood finally seems to be growing tired of). It’s very much an ideas film, with Eline Kuppens’ protagonist Marie – a lonely track runner aiming for the European Championships – embarking on a subdued and slow-moving journey that knows how to be interesting and often mysterious without playing its hand too early or tossing aside its tension for cheap thrills and spills.
There are some more impressionistic moments amidst the grimy reality of Antwerp’s Left Bank (where most of the film is set) and these work well alongside the well photographed realism. The film’s naturalist sensibilities (occasionally reminiscent of Malick) are mingled well with the urban landscapes and the director/cinematographer team have succeeded in establishing an aesthetic that it not only visually arresting but also, like the rest of the film, layered with symbolism. The film contains a fair degree of nudity and isn’t afraid to be explicit when it feels the need, but this element crucially comes across as relevant rather than disingenuous because the film is so deeply concerned with sexuality.
Good performances all round propel the film towards a climax that is somehow both satisfying and a little frustrating. It isn’t a cheat – that is important to note – but it may feel a little too conceptual for some. That said, it has the courage of its convictions and should be commended. Left Bank is a film that should put Pieter Van Hees on the radar: it isn’t perfect, and it may not appeal to a large audience, but this is still a confident and rewarding piece.
Left Bank is out on DVD on May 10th.