A slow burning horror flick that eschews cheap scares and gore, and, indeed, most of the usual horror tropes, the Belgian film Left Bank (aka Linkeroever) is destined to divide audiences.
A stark departure from mainstream fare, it’s a character-driven Lovecraftian nightmare, big on atmosphere and reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. There’s plenty here for art house film fans who will appreciate its artistic merit, but others may find it a tad overwrought and more than a bit longwinded.
Marie (Eline Kuppens), a professional runner, is diagnosed with severe iron deficiency and forced to take time off from competitive running. She meets Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts), a handsome archer, and moves in with him in the Left Bank district of Antwerp.
It’s all well and good until Marie starts investigating the disappearance of the flat’s former tenant, and discovers the area’s sordid history, dating back to the Middle Ages when it was home to witches, plague victims and other assorted miscreants that were banned from the city proper. Her investigation takes a terrifying turn as Samhain, the Festival of the Dead, approaches.
As Marie, Kuppens is an incredibly likeable lead. She’s not your typical scream queen. She’s a fully rounded, three-dimensional character. Refreshingly, the supporting cast is very good too. Far from the malformed mutants you’d expect in mainstream horror, the creepy tenants in Marie’s apartment block are remarkably normal looking. There’s nary a cleft pallet or misshapen head to be seen.
For the most part, director Pieter Van Hees successfully avoids such horror movie clichés. It’s remarkable that Left Bank is his directorial debut. It could easily be the work of someone much more accomplished. To say it’s like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist would be to do it a huge disservice. It’s no way near as visceral, for one thing, but there are similarities in cinematography and symbolism. There are also hints of early David Cronenberg, with elements of body horror. Polanski, though, is the most obvious comparison.
Like Polanski, Van Hees’ direction is precise and unhurried. After a brief, intriguing opening, it’s all about characterisation and a slow, practically glacial, build-up. Therein lies its biggest flaw, however, and the thing that will divide audiences: character comes at the expense of tension for the first half of the film.
It looks great and the acting and direction is first-rate, but the story moves along so slowly, with only subtle hints of anything frightening, that you actually forget you’re watching a horror movie.
The pace does eventually pick up in the second half, though, and it becomes a genuinely intriguing occult mystery. It gets a bit confusing as Marie’s increasingly disturbing dreams blur with the reality of her situation, not to mention there’s an ancient guild whose motives are unclear, hints of reincarnation and something called The Diabolic Vagina, which may or may not lead directly to Hell. The ending, too, while excellent, leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Pacing issues aside, Left Bank marks Van Hees as a major talent to watch for in the future. If you can handle subtitles and you don’t mind an unhurried, unconventional horror film, then it’s well worth a look. If you can’t, or you don’t have the patience, you needn’t bother.
Left Bank is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.