In retrospect, it’s amazing to consider the ongoing link between cultural heritage and folklore and what we call ‘horror’. Fear is such a part of who we are personally, so tied into the very facets of our humanity and human knowledge of mortality that the fables and fairytales which fueled our youth often translate into the terrors that remain as adults. It’s all a matter of updating and contemporizing. This is especially true in countries with long standing traditions, regions more or less formed out of the myths and legends of the past. In the wonderful new film Left Bank, Belgian director Pieter Van Hees uses a modern setting to tell an ancient tale of ritual, sacrifice, and the beast that must be appeased. Within this world of cellphones, skyscrapers, and instant information, some remnants of our dark ages linger, unholy…and hungry.
Marie is a professional runner with hopes of making it to the European Championships in Portugal. Her coach has faith in her, while her mother hates how she pushes herself. When she is diagnosed with a mysterious blood disease, Marie is sidelined. Hoping to ease her disappointment, she moves in with new boyfriend Bobby. He’s a car salesman and the dean of a prestigious archery guild. His apartment on the outskirts of Antwerp (known locally as ‘Left Bank’) also has a bit of a history. The previous tenant, a woman named Hella, simply up and disappeared one day. Her fiancé, Dirk, thinks it has something to do with the complex’s haunted history. It was built on the site of a heretical church, a place where a pit to the underworld is supposedly located. Soon, Marie learns that she’s in line to be a sacrifice to the monster that lives in the basement, an entity served by many in the building - perhaps even Bobby.
Left Bank is so much more than a standard horror movie that when it starts its slowburn stomp toward a truly crackerjack ending, we tend to distrust the pacing. Few fright films use deliberate moments of silence and inactivity as a means of creating menace, especially in the newfangled formula in which everything scary is supposed to be over the top, action packed, and hyperactive. Instead, Van Hees hopes we will buy into the blatant David Lynchian nods, the sequences of dream logic surrealism that evoke something other than shivers. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the obvious last act macabre, narrative fusing the modern with the mythic to create a visceral creepshow callback, we’d swear this was some manner of Inland Empire riff. There are shots here that instantly recall the clinically controlled approach of Kurbrick, the Coens, and of course, the aforementioned Midwestern madman himself.
It’s also interesting the way Van Hees misdirects the audience. When we think of horror, we automatically assume diabolical or disturbing ends. But Left Bank may not be asking for our concern. Instead, we could be dealing with a question of implied perception. We hear words like “sacrifice” and “underworld”, see situations in which other characters appear terrified and tormented, we see a leg injury turn gangrenous and oozing, and we instantly sense something sinister. But all throughout this amazing movie, Van Hees never goes for the throat. Instead, he keeps things ambiguous, baiting the viewer with portents both evil and evocative. If we are to believe Bobby, if we listen very carefully to everything he has to say, the fate of those introduced to cellar 51 might not be all that bad - at least, within the context of what we usually associate with the realm of fear.
The cultural differences also make Left Bank compelling. The entire subplot involving Marie’s running career is very interesting, giving us insights into the character that otherwise might be missing from the narrative. Indeed, it reflects on her health food store managing mother, her overly friendly coach, and the oddly detached doctors who treat any injury like a combination of calamity and inconvenience. Superstition also rears its illogical head, residents of the apartment complex responding in oddball ways when they learn of its potential history. There’s even a small amount of socio-economic commentary at play, Bobby’s Russian buddies clearly illustrating the growing connection between Eastern Europe and Asia. That they also act both aggressive and subservient to the situation at hand offers its own clever conclusions.
Like other knowing foreign fright films, Left Bank definitely lets us in slowly and methodically. We are never overwhelmed with information, even when Van Hees turns up the trickery to add some artistic flourishes (the party scenes, complete with superbly spastic camera movements, really amplify the dread). There are many unanswered questions here - why is Marie’s father so unimportant to the story? Why did Hella disappear if our heroine was always the “target”? What is the significance of the files in the archery guild (except, perhaps, to act as a shout out to The Shining)? And when Marie finally understands her fate, what is confronting her and why does it seem so…apathetic? It’s mysteries like these that make Left Bank so intriguing. It allows a viewer to bring their own interpretation to the mix, making as much sense (or as little) out of Van Hees’ designs as possible.
In the end, Left Bank will probably be unfairly judged for its lack of gore, understated approach, and often indecipherable conceits. But when something is this moody, this given over to gorgeously composed shots of sinister inference, a lack of blood or believability is a minor complaint at best. Pieter Van Hess has created a thriller that seeps under your skin, that shocks you with its nonconformity to the written rules of terror. Instead, what we end up witnessing is one girl’s chance at a second life - albeit one drenched in the pagan beliefs of centuries gone by. How that fits within the facets of modern metropolitan life in today’s Belgium is what this movie is really driving at. As with many movies made outside the US, it’s a battle between the ways of the past and the wants of now. How said struggle ends is what give something like Left Bank its power - and its ability to unnerve.