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.
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 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.)