Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part I): Left Bank (2008) dir. Pieter Van Hees

a.k.a. Linkeroever

Logline: After being diagnosed with an inexplicable bout of chronic fatigue syndrome and dropping out of a big track competition, Marie (Eline Kuppens) moves into the apartment of her new boyfriend, Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts), in order to convalesce. While there, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the sudden disappearance of the apartments's previous occupant and the sinister pagan history of the surrounding area, Antwerp's Left Bank. As her condition worsens and the peculiar encounters pile up, Marie begins to realize that someone or something in the Left Bank has plans for her.

Analysis: If Left Bank has any obvious fault, it's that it might have hammered away too freely at its themes of wasted lives, second chances, and rebirth before its incredible final moments, when this previous talk takes on very literal significance and (almost) all is made clear. Perhaps there's one too many lines of dialogue in which Bobby expresses his desire to give Marie "the chance to do better" or Marie herself wishes she could "just start all over again." For the viewer, Bobby's observation that Marie doesn't even look happy when she's running (i.e. engaging in her life's passion) was apparent already from Eline Kuppens's sober and aimless performance. At only 27 years old, Marie is a young woman who has been beaten down too far by her own brief existence, saddled as she is with the baggage of an overbearing mother, a disappointed father figure, the absence of a social life, and a sense of self-loathing bred from perfectionism. In truth, she's a typical twentysomething who is having difficulty making the transition to full-blown adulthood, and so she experiences the malaise of having to Figure It All Out. There's nothing inherently fatal about Marie's condition, though it might certainly feel that way to her, stuck in the moment. She yearns for a return to the childhood innocence she has left behind, when all this stuff didn't matter.

Peculiarly, this dilemma in Marie's life is that which the film's pagan guild exploits for their earthly magic. Reading the overdramatic suffering and ennui on Marie's blandly tortured face, the guild members decide to lead her (forcefully, but perhaps not unwillingly) towards sacrifice in honor of what they call alternately The Diabolical Vagina and the great Dragon in the ground. Through their drawn-out occult ceremonies, they usher her towards both death and life renewed. This makes them rather odd villains. They're certainly menacing enough (and mean with a crossbow when threatened), but the pagan guild is essentially doing no more than giving Marie what she outwardly desires. Sure, the guild themselves possibly receive immortality and eternal youth in return, but would we begrudge them that for their good deed? In one sense, they're preying on Marie's youthful weakness and confusion for their own benefit; in another, they're teaching her what so many of cinema's gypsies have taught us in the past-- be careful what you wish for.

Technical Merits: Though the pagans' plot against Marie is ultimately revealed to be quite simple (at least in comparison with other human sacrifices we've seen in film), director Pieter Van Hees and his screenwriters don't shy away from including ambiguous visual symbolism--the sort to inspire much baffled IMDb discussion board commentary--whenever they have the chance. The choice to include so many of these unexplained moments (like Marie's discovery of ash in the crotch of her panties, her suckling of a grown man while on a jog through the forest, the rat that explodes from out of her hairy knee wound, and the presence of her paternal track coach at her apparent rebirth) could be frustratingly vague, but the cinematography from Nicolas Karakatsanis and the editing by Nico Leunen ably support such maneuvers by never lingering the shot or prolonging the scene in order to hold our hands through an interpretation of its ripe imagery. Nor does the cinematography or editing easily explain away these surreal visuals as products of Marie's dream life; rather, these aspects of the film ground the visuals in a skewed sense of reality. This approach gives such moments a subtle coherence or logic: despite how strange they may appear, they're presented as if they're organic to world we're witnessing on screen. To make the bizarre commonplace is an impressive feat.

Relevance: Left Bank should be of interest to horror fans for its successful melding of two European horror subgenres previously unassociated, Polanski's Polish/French/American urban paranoia thriller (as seen in The Tenant [1976], Rosemary's Baby [1968], and Repulsion [1965]) and the rural pagan superstition horror that was dominant for a time in the United Kingdom (in films like The Wicker Man [1973], Robin Redbreast [1970], Lair of the White Worm [1988], and The Blood on Satan's Claw [1971]). We can call the combination successful because the juxtaposition of what seems at first to be two disparate subgenres serves to point out the obvious facts that we've forgotten: the cities of Europe were once rural landscapes, and the people inhabiting these areas might not have possessed the same cuddly, (largely) non-violent belief systems of the modern world. The film asks us to ponder what dark, ancient history might still remain buried in the earth, beneath the excess of concrete and metal that we've built up around us. Beyond its narrative conflation of the subgenres, the film also does a swell job of reminding us visually of this dual history of its location by giving frequent screentime to placid shots of the quietly menacing forests, fields, and waters scattered alongside the Left Bank's busy urban environments, reminding us that the latter has not consumed the former but simply masks it.

Left Bank is also of interest in that it--along with a few other notable recent films--marks a revitalization of Belgian horror cinema, which has been nearly nonexistent in the last few decades, and previously was only marked by a few scattered films like Daughters of Darkness (1971), The Devil's Nightmare (1971), and Rabid Grannies (1988). Left Bank is the first of three (!) contemporary Belgian horror films to make this collection of my favorites of the past ten years, so (in my estimation at least) we're in the midst of a mini-renaissance of horror from the land of fries and waffles.

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