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May 2010

Left Bank

cast: Eline Kuppens, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Tom De Wispelaere

director: Pieter Van Hees

98 minutes (18) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Exposure DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Left Bank

Horror is a literary genre that is primarily concerned with the journey from town to country: from civilisation to barbarism, from the comfort of the known to the terror of the unknown. It is about being yanked from a womb-like cocoon of safety and being hurled into a cold and desolate world that is strange and hostile and alien. It is about the shattering of the bourgeois idylls that we construct around ourselves in a desperate attempt to keep the real world out. Of course, some works of horror have taken this description rather more literally than others... Consider, for example, Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (1902), with its journey from the civilised Thames to the wilds of the Congo River. Consider, too, films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes, works that describe in gory detail what happens when 'civilised' people step off the map.

This tendency to literalise horror's underlying thematic structure has undeniably yielded some incredibly powerful works, but it has also resulted in a degree of social ossification as horror filmmakers, in particular, struggle to address fears and anxieties that are not reducible to a literal journey from the town to the country. One such source of anxiety is the extent to which modern city-dwellers feel alienated from the people around them despite living in what are frequently cramped and crowded conditions. Indeed, even classic films addressing the issue of urban alienation such as Roman Polanski's so-called 'Apartment' trilogy - comprising Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant (1976) - have tended to concentrate less upon how lonely and isolated people feel and more upon feelings of oppression and suffocation caused by living in a community.

Given that the majority of the human species now lives in cities, there is a pressing need for films and stories that address the brutal realities of city life. Films very much like Pieter Van Hees' compellingly unpleasant Left Bank (aka: Linkeroever); films that not only symbolically characterise social problems but also interrogate them.

Marie (Eline Kuppens) is a runner. Once a successful child athlete, she now finds herself poised to represent Belgium at the European championships. She is successful for her age but she is not happy. She wishes she could be faster. She wishes she could do more. In an attempt to overcome these feelings of unhappiness, Marie is pushing herself harder and harder to the point where she is collapsing in shops. Unhappy and now forbidden from running, Marie makes friends with local archer Bobby (Matthias Schoenarts).

Initially, Bobby's arrival seems like a godsend, offering as it does a welcome opportunity for Marie to escape from a life filled with unhappiness and overshadowed by her doctor, her coach and her mother. In fact, things go so well to begin with that Marie decides to move into Bobby's huge flat in a tower block on Antwerp's unfashionable Linkeroever district. However, once Marie moves in with Bobby, problems start to arise as Bobby's behaviour starts to change and questions arise about the safety of her new home: who are the weird bald men who hang out in the basement? What happened to the previous tenant of Bobby's apartment? Is the building built atop an ancient plague pit? As the film's narrative plays itself out, Left Bank answers all of these questions, but the answers it offers are strangely unsettling.

Left Bank is a film that operates on two levels; one quite traditionally 'art house' and the other much more transgressive and unpleasant. Let us begin by considering the more traditional interpretation of the film.

Marie is a profoundly lonely person. Her life is overshadowed, regimented and defined by domineering and controlling influences that seem incapable of providing her with love, friendship or even happiness - she is both oppressed by the expectations of others and isolated from those around her. In other words, she is the poster-child for 21st century living. When Bobby introduces himself to Marie, he seems to offer a way out and she jumps at the opportunity. But once moved in with her boyfriend, Marie starts to have doubts about the people around her and Bobby in particular. As his behaviour starts to shift, she comes to realise that she does not actually know this man... indeed; can anyone really say that they know anyone?

Marie's obsessive desire to get to grips with the legends surrounding the building and the disappearance of the flat's previous tenant is clearly a projection of her desperate desire to know and understand her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her flirtatious relationship with research-buddy Dirk (De Wispelaere) is a neat transposition at her frustration with Bobby and her relationship with him. The grass is always greener on the other side and, just as Marie bailed on her mother and coach to take up with Bobby, the suggestion is that she might well be about to 'trade-up' to a life with the more stable and 'understandable' Dirk.

Focussing solely on this first strand, Left Bank reveals itself as a brilliant articulation of the paradoxes of urban life and how easy it is to live one's life hoping for a better existence instead of actually fixing the life that one has. Marie's feelings of isolation and paranoia are communicated by the plot and Kuppens' superb performance but also by Van Hees' use of traditional art house cinematic vocabulary such as a glacially slow pace and lots of lingering shots of barren winter woodlands, twilight cityscapes, and people sitting around their box-like apartments looking miserable. But Left Bank also has a second level to it. A level filled with something... unpleasant.

In a move reminiscent of both Rosemary's Baby, and The Wicker Man, Left Bank is built around the idea of dark pagan practices lurking just beneath the surface of the apparently modern world; in Rosemary's Baby, it was a satanic cult and the birth of the Antichrist, and in The Wicker Man, it was the worship of old gods and human sacrifice. Both of these films cinematically embody a movement from town to country by following their protagonists as they peel away the skin of the apparently mundane world in order to discover something fantastical and terrifying.

Think of the way in which these films anchor themselves in the real world before revealing their darkness. Think of the way in which the young couple redecorate their apartment in Rosemary's Baby, or the scene in The Wicker Man which shows Edward Woodward arriving on Summerisle. In both cases, the world the characters have entered into is apparently normal. It is only when the characters learn the truth that their worlds begin to change and take on their true and weird characteristics such as the hideous cot in Rosemary's Baby and the twisted procession in The Wicker Man.

Left Bank takes the opposite visual approach. Instead of anchoring itself in the real world and then introducing fantastical and gothic elements, Left Bank reveals the ugly truth at the heart of the world from almost the very beginning. Indeed, in one early scene Marie goes to buy a new pair of shoes. She is wearing a short skirt and the shop assistant sneaks a look up at her crotch. His face immediately registers a look of utter disgust... Marie is having her period and her knickers are soaked with blood. In a second, Marie's vagina has moved from being something that causes desire to something that causes disgust. The shop assistant's capacity for movement between two extreme and opposed sets of feelings at the drop of a hat neatly articulates the secret at the heart of the film: a secret which, some would argue, exists at the heart of every man - a paradoxical and misogynistic hatred of women in general and female sexuality in particular.

Left Bank is a film built around a mystical conspiracy. A conspiracy that stretches back before the arrival of Christianity to a time where sacrifices were made to ensure extended life. These Samhain sacrifices involved the killing of women... but first women had to be seduced and lured into the clutches of the cult. This love/ hate relationship animates the central paradox of misogyny: women are there to be lusted after, women are there to be fought for, women are there to be desired... but women are not in and of themselves likeable. In fact, they are downright loathsome� Loathsome creatures with dank, stinking, drooling, festering cunts... Cunts that men spend their lives trying to gain access to... Cunts that men require if they want to have offspring... And cunts that have the power to enflame and to disgust at the drop of a hat.

Left Bank's visual are infused with a horrific misogyny. It is present in the leery way the camera lingers on Kuppens' naked body during the over-long sex scenes. It is present in the way the film almost fetishises the probing of wound on her leg and it is present in all the talk of 'dark holes', 'the devil's vagina' and the fact that the film's climax takes place on the edges of a dark, dank, sucking hole in the building's basement. Indeed, though Left Bank is a film about Marie's discovery of an evil misogynistic cult, the film is shot from the perspective of the cult rather than Marie. This makes for an intensely unpleasant viewing experience that is oddly reminiscent of much more positive but just as mysterious cinematic depictions of female sexuality such as those in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence (2004), and Celine Schiamma's Water Lillies. All of these films depict female sexuality as mysterious and problematic but only Left Bank seems willing to embrace and embody the paradox of that attitude.

Consider the two levels of Left Bank together and you have a thematically complex and viscerally powerful piece of filmmaking. It's a film that perfectly articulates a misogynistic view of women but without being in any way sympathetic to that view. Indeed, the way in which the two levels of Left Bank are transposed suggest that far from being a simple question of individual isolation or collective repression; feelings of social alienation might also be due to unchallenged and pervasively toxic sets of social attitudes. Attitudes that lie buried below, and that keep re-appearing, generation after generation, in order to reclaim a new set of victims.

However, as powerful and thoughtful a film as Left Bank may be, it is not completely satisfying. Indeed, despite painting a successful picture of social alienation and establishing a remarkably unsettling visual vocabulary, Van Hees never quite manages to make the two levels mesh in a way that allows us to understand a suggested theory of cause and effect. Because Van Hees invokes misogynistic depictions of female sexuality and because he never quite manages to do anything with those ideas, he opens Left Bank up to the charge that it is itself a misogynistic work. Of course, whether it is or not is largely a question that the audience must resolve for itself but I would argue that the fact that Kuppens' Marie remains sympathetic and empowered right up until the end suggests that if the film has a failing it is a lack of clarity, not a hatred of women.

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