With a past as steeped in mythology and dark folkloric superstition as the desolate area of Antwerp known as Linkeroever already is, it was hardly surprising that this once distinct, independent region on the far banks of the river Scheldt, should be made the ominous setting of Belgium director Pieter Van Hees's brooding, debut occult thriller, "Left Bank". Belgium does not exactly have a distinguished tradition of Horror cinema, but the handful of practitioners who have contributed to the genre over the years have produced some highly idiosyncratic and ground-breaking works; from Harry Kümel's 1971 classic "Daughters of Darkness", to Fabrice Du Welz's astonishing emotional odyssey "Vinyan", in 2008. Van Hees can lay claim to having added yet another link to the country's fragile chain of somber horror classics, with a disquieting film that takes a pinch of just about every occult-themed arthouse thriller from the last forty years for its ingredients, but mixes them together with a delirious, shadowy homegrown Belgium brew that results in an hallucinatory tale every bit as rich and visually evocative as the artistic traditions represented by the region's great 17th century works of portraiture .
Marie (Eline Kuppens) is a driven, highly ambitious young up-and-coming athlete, who's all set to travel to Portugal, having qualified for a prestigious, possibly career-making European championship event being held there, when a mysterious debilitating illness suddenly intervenes to bring ruin to all her plans and dreams. At about the same time, she meets an attractive archery student called Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts) and soon gets lost in the throes of a torrid sexual relationship with him, while also taking the opportunity to move out of her possessive mother's cramped apartment above a health food store, and into Bobby's new home on the 15th floor of a grim-looking block of flats in the Left Bank region of Antwerp.
It isn't long before Marie discovers some strange and unnerving information about her new place of abode and its surrounding environs. It turns out that the former occupant of Bobby's flat - a female of about Marie's age, called Hella - recently disappeared in mysterious circumstances (thus enabling Bobby to get the place at a knock-down rate) leaving only a mysterious box of newspapers and library clippings, and a slip of paper with a single word clue scrawled on it. When Hella's former boyfriend, Dirk (Tom De Wispelaere) turns up to collect these possessions, Marie is drawn into helping him investigate the building's dark history. It seems that the block of flats was built upon a site which, legend has it, in medieval times was called "The Devil's Vagina": a confinement area for the region's dispossessed and its criminal elements. Myths and ancient folklore tell of a dark pit formed out of a crack in time, and of the creature within it that had to be fed every seven years in an annual feast of renewal, once presided over by an organisation called the Dragon's Guild. This Freemasons-like secret society still exists in the present-day. In fact, Marie's boyfriend Bobby is its Dean - although these days it is more prosaically associated with his sport of archery.
Meanwhile, ever since her sickness, Marie's body seems to be in some sort of strange rebellion against her. If frequent vomiting and erratic periods wouldn't be enough to upset most young women, a strange sooty deposit in the underwear and a gruesome knee wound that refuses ever to heal, but instead swells up and starts to sprout wiry black hairs would probably do the trick! Paranoia grows along with her enervating physical symptoms and the discovery that there is indeed a deep, tar-filled pit in the bowels of the building - in a dungeon-like lower floor named cellar 51 - is only the prelude to the building sense of claustrophobic dread that leads to a disturbing climax, as fate and dark history conspire against her.
"Left Bank" makes no bones about the heritage of prestigious productions in occult-themed cinema to which it clearly owes a strong narrative debt. Anyone even remotely familiar with "The Wicker Man" or "Rosemary's Baby" will be cognisant fairly early on of the general landscape it inhabits and of the trajectory the film's plot takes. Connoisseurs of this cinema will be acutely aware of the influence Polanski's "The Tenant" or Fulci's "The Beyond", even Michael Soavi's "The Sect" - to which it probably owes the most in terms of its disturbing, nightmare-surrealist body horror imagery - wield over it in terms of the forbidding atmosphere director Pieter Van Hees successfully establishes during what gradually emerges as a twisted tale of benighted female sexuality. Van Hees plans the film to be the first of a trilogy he calls 'an anatomy of love and pain', this entry being focused on the Body. The genre of each movie will be determined by the themes the director attempts to explore.This first film rises way above its predictable genre origins in devil-based horror to become a dense, psycho-geographic tour through the suggestive undergrowth of myth and legend that lies buried beneath the wintry landscape of a particularly bleak urban city setting - weaving a dreamlike narrative that acts as a compelling metaphor for the sexual discovery and emotional turmoil of the film's introverted heroine.
Eline Kuppens gives a brave, uncompromising performance as the film's protagonist, Marie - enmeshed in strange and ancient schemes she barely comprehends. The screenplay inverts the usual set-up of such stories - such as that found in both "The Sect" and "Rosemary's Baby" for instance - where a lone protagonist begins to suspect a dark truth she cannot make anyone else aware of. Here, there are many signs to warn Marie of what lies in store, not least from her new-age minded psychic mother who senses the "bad vibes" emanating from cellar 51, and the sick building syndrome that results in many of the tenants suffering headaches and various other minor ailments. We know, having seen many films of a similar theme, what lies in store for her, but Marie is blinded by haywire emotions from acknowledging the truth, and so continues on down the inevitable fateful path to the film's unpredictable conclusion.
In the grand tradition of foreign arthouse cinema, there are some extremely erotic and frank sex scenes during the first half of the movie and Kuppens spends at least a third of the film's total running time completely nude; but this nakedness becomes more and more associated with the themes of rebirth and eternal return represented by the Celtic folkloric elements on which the fragmentary, impressionistic plot relies, than it does on a desire to titillate for exploitative reasons. Possibly crude but, in the context, effective, Freudian imagery reoccurs throughout, as the dark "pit" of the central legend crops up in various guises: in Marie's dream life and hallucinations - where she dreams of finding an abandoned baby in a forest - to her own mysterious illness, most potently represented by the disturbing black dust secretions which seem to emerge from between her legs. Other physical manifestations occur that might represent birthing or hatching; and the old idea of there being a special region of space where the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead becomes thin - a gateway to another existence - is used to stunningly original effect in the bizarrely affecting climax of a film which doesn't completely make sense in a strictly logical sense, but which establishes enough of its own ground rules to convince of its integrity. The ending is both horrific and grim; and yet also transcendent and fantastical at the same time. This doesn't quite reach the emotional level of recent arthouse horror hit "Let The Right One In", but it gets close, and is a welcome addition to the small clutch of intelligent, more adult-oriented horror films which have emerged from Europe over the last couple of years. This is well worth checking out.
"Left Bank" gets a welcome UK release on DVD by Exposure Cinema with a strong transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. The duel layer disc will also include deleted scenes, a production diary, stills gallery and trailers.