Left Bank does just about everything a horror film ought to do, except create something truly frightening. Oh, it fills the air with a disturbing presence for some time, and continually raises the tension surrounding its mystery. Yet just when it needs to kick into high gear, it descends into convoluted confusion. It's like a delicious cake with cloying frosting.
Belgian director Pieter Van Hees skillfully sets his film in a seductive but creepy apartment complex in the film's titular Antwerp neighborhood. Marie (Eline Kuppens) finds herself under its spell after years of training to run track in the European Championship prove for naught after she collapses one day and discovers that she has nutrient deficiencies. While normally not the most social of girls, she decides to spend some time with a persistent archer from her training grounds named Bobby, whom she abruptly moves in with to escape being shut-in with her mother. Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Rob, has a scruffy face and sheepish smile reminiscent of Ryan Gosling, and looks to be a thoughtful, caring boyfriend. But of course the film's frightening prologue didn't suggest sunny weather.
This isn't a typical horror number, but a film that aims to tap into a deeper psychological terror. There are very few actual moments of violence (which isn't to say that the moments that come aren't disturbing), and Marie doesn't encounter much in the way of danger during the film's first few acts. Indeed, the sense of fear comes mainly from the film's slightly skewed reality. We may notice scars on Bob during a sex scene or feel unease with the building's tenants--and it's hard to ignore the ashes Marie finds in her underwear--but Van Hees is content to build on that, without concern for gotcha moments.
The success lies in the atmosphere, and Van Hees tosses us into a world of unknown shadows and seedy locales. He hints at the supernatural happenings with dream sequences that act as transitions, drifting in and out of the narrative consciousness. Sometimes Marie appears in disjointing scenarios in the building or the woods; other times we see unexplained antique footage from a decaying, black-and-white film reel.
All this projects an impending dread that gives everything a certain urgency, but Marie herself doesn't feel it through most of the film. She's dealing with her life crisis by retreating into her new life. Even when the mystery mesmerizes her, she's never drawn into it enough for things to get out of control. When things finally go off the rails, the she's pretty much solved all she's going to solve.
While the conclusion adds a nice layer of ambiguity, it misplaces the truly haunting impact that all the build-up promises. We're left more with an "Oh...huh" conclusion instead of dread. So while the journey to Left Bank was entertaining, and maybe even worthwhile, it's not one worth taking twice.
The atmosphere of Left Bank lurks in the dark corners, so it's a good thing that IFC Film's Left Bank DVD preserves all the details in the blacks and greys. The anamorphic transfer presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and reproduces its grey colors and natural lighting quite well. Some of the most memorable shots involve bright lights that giveway to darkness a few feet away. The glowing, green gradients are eerie and visually striking.
Some slight compression artifacts are noticeable when viewed up close, partly arising from the somewhat grainy film stock, but overall this is an unobtrusive, quality picture.
The film's approach to sound design matches its visuals well, concentrating heavily on the natural sounds of environments and finding creepiness in naturalism. The DVD presents the film with its original Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The mix is well-balanced and clear without any major problems. You never know what language you'll end up speaking while in Belgium, but in Left River's case it's usually Dutch. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The disc's main feature is 15 minutes of deleted scenes on one title with no chapter breaks. They range from completed scenes to single-shot takes to somewhat amusing bloopers. These are by no means earth-shattering revelations, but will interest fans.
The terrible theatrical trailer features one of those painfully obvious American voice-overs that you see when studios don't know how to market a foreign film. It does contain some cool shots, though. (The trailer is 4x3 letterboxed.)
Left Bank is a film that shows more promise than it lives up to. While the DVD presents the film well, it doesn't exactly offer an awe-inspiring set of special features. I wouldn't recommend a blind-buy for this film, but if you're intrigued, it's worth a rental.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.