Last year critics and horror fans showered praise on the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In aka Låt den rätte komma (2008). The attention was well deserved and I enjoyed seeing critics twist themselves up in knots trying to explain their enjoyment of a horror film. The genre is still incredibly misunderstood and this can partially be blamed on the glut of lackluster American horror films churned out year after year that manage to overshadow the more worthwhile horror films coming out of Europe, Asia and the U.K. right now. Thankfully cinema fantastique is still alive and well overseas. You just have to dig a little deeper to find it.
While the world was becoming enamored with Let the Right One In, I was falling in love with another horror film called Left Bank aka Linkeroever (2008). Left Bank is the first full-length horror film made by the talented Belgian director and writer Pieter Van Hees who’s earlier efforts seem to suggest an interest in sports. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that Left Bank also features an athletic protagonist named Marie in the form of charismatic newcomer Eline Kuppens.
In the film we’re introduced to Marie just as she is being forced to drop out of an important track competition after showing symptoms of an illness her doctor assumes is associated with stress and iron deficiency. The doctor orders Marie to rest, but that’s not an easy task for the energetic running enthusiast who also hoped that the competition would offer her an opportunity to escape the prying eyes of her overprotective mother.
Things begin to look up for Marie when she develops a romantic relationship with a handsome archer named Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts). The young couple seems to be incredibly well-suited for one another and Marie soon decides to move in with Bobby who lives in an apartment on Antwerp’s Left Bank. The film does a wonderful job of capturing the passionate carefree days that occur early in a relationship when two people meet and fall head-over-heels for one another. Marie and Bobby rarely seem to leave their apartment and instead spend most of their waking hours making love and just enjoying each other’s company.
Their idyllic existence slowly begins to come undone when Marie discovers that the previous tenant of their apartment disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Marie decides to investigate the tenant’s disappearance as well as the area where their apartment is located and in the process she becomes more and more uncomfortable with her new surroundings. Her health also begins to deteriorate and she experiences strange symptoms such as mysterious vaginal discharges, nausea, headaches, wounds that won’t heal, insomnia as well as lucid nightmares that are deeply troubling. Marie has spent her life strengthening her body and pushing it beyond its limits but now her body seems to be fighting back and slowly falling apart. Naturally Marie’s anxiety about her new living arrangements and health problems cause friction in her relationship with Bobby. But unlike a lot of modern horror films that use poorly defined human relationships as mere filler, the development and disintegration of Marie and Bobby’s relationship is at the center of Left Bank and forms the nucleus of this fascinating horror film.
Left Bank is a beautiful looking, thoughtful and atmospheric film that intrigued me from beginning to end. Pieter Van Hees has clearly been inspired by the work of Roman Polanski, but he uses this influence in surprisingly innovative ways. Left Bank borrows a few ideas from Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and even Repulsion (1965), which were arguably the first “body horror” films, but observant horror fans will also note similarities between British horror classics such as Eye of the Devil (1966)Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Like Polanski and David Cronenberg before him, Pieter Von Hees has the uncanny ability to create tension and scares out of minor situations. In turn, Left Bank creeps over viewers and deeply unnerves them instead of bludgeoning them with shocks and gore. The film offers a few surprises for well-versed horror fans and the ending will either impress and enchant you, or leave you shaking your head in disappointment or disbelief. But I believe Left Bank is an important horror film. It’s as important as the highly praised Swedish import Let the Right One In, which also explores similar themes about intimacy, death and isolation in unexpected ways.
The terrific score composed by electronic artist Eavesdropper and cellist Simon Lenski really compliments the movie. Belgium has always been on the forefront of electronic music and I was impressed by the way director Pieter Van Hees used Belgian electronica in his film. Left Bank is also one of the best looking films I’ve seen in recent years. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis does some remarkable work here that deserves much more praise than it’s received. His camera brilliantly captures the stark and beautiful landscape of Antwerp’s Left Bank, which makes a chilling backdrop for the movie. If the story Left Bank tells seems somewhat familiar, it’s transformed by Karakatsanis camera and Pieter Van Hees’ directing choices into something truly rich and strange.
I especially enjoyed the way Pieter Van Hees incorporated old photos and archival films into his own movie. It cleverly added to the overall sense of ancient dread that Hess was trying to invoke. It also gave the underlying story about pagan cults and rituals an authenticity that I appreciated. These kind of creative choices make Left Bank stand out among similar efforts. Von Hees also proves that he knows how to get good performances from his actors.
Belgian born actresss Eline Kuppens is really remarkable in the role of Marie and it’s hard to believe that Left Bank is her first full-length feature film. She has a natural earthy beauty and winning smile, but she’s also a fearless actress who gives 100% to her role. Her lovemaking scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts are incredibly honest and unlike countless other horror protagonists, Kuppens doesn’t sacrifice her brains or her emotions as she navigates through the various horrors that plague her character throughout the course of the film. I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of Eline Kuppens in the future.
According to the movie’s official website, Left Bank is the first film in a trilogy that director Pieter Van Hees is planning called “Anatomy of Love and Death” which promises to “dissect love in all its aspects.” I eagerly await part two because if it’s anything like Left Bank, film audiences are in for a real treat.
Unfortunately Left Bank isn’t available on DVD in the US yet (Update: There is a subtitled widescreen PAL Region 2 DVD available at Amazon for those who have access to an all-region DVD player), but I believe the distribution rights are owned by IFC Films and I hope they make the film available soon so more people can enjoy it. It’s definitely one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the past 10 years and it deserves a wider audience as well as more critical attention than it’s received.