During the late 00s things were really looking up for Belgian genre cinema. Multiple interesting and daring projects were being announced every year and young and upcoming talents were making a name for themselves, both in front as well as behind the camera. I remember catching Left Bank [Linkeroever] in cinemas and being charmed by this nifty and creepy occult horror, though I wasn't quite certain if and how it would hold up 10 years later. There was only one way to find out.
Horror was all the rage back in the late 00s, even so it took Flanders a while to jump on the bandwagon. Left Bank was Pieter Van Hees' first horror project, but with some first class help from the Karakatsanis brothers (Small Gods) that wasn't too big of an issue. Their involvement also goes a long way to explain how this film turned out the way it did. Dimitri helped with the writing, Nicolas handled the cinematography, hence the dark, sullen and grungy atmosphere that runs throughout the film.
It's not often that I'm watching a film that was shot near where I live, so there's that of course. Linkeroever is right across the Schelde, some of the views in the film I share when I look out of my window, only the angles are a little different. I can vouch that the reputation of the area is properly presented, though the cinematography does make it look a lot drearier than it is in real life. It is of course a horror film and not a documentary, even so I can imagine the people living there not being too happy with the way their little corner of Antwerp is characterized here.
The film follows the story of Marie, a promising 800m runner who, after qualifying for the European Championship, is struck with a vitamin deficit. In order to get better again she needs to rest, which keeps her from participating in the Championship. To clear her head, she hooks up with an archer she met on the training grounds. She moves in with him, but even though they're having a great time together, Marie's condition doesn't seem to be improving. To make matters worse, she gets obsessed with the disappearance of the previous tenant of the house, who left without a single trace.
Nicolas Karakatsanis is one of the best Belgian cinematographers around (which usually doesn't say that much, but in the case of cinematographers it's actually quite the compliment). His work here does a great deal to establish the dark and sullen atmosphere that grounds the film. Drab and desaturated colors, grim surroundings and smart use of vibrocam effects all play their part in accomplishing this. While the digital look is a bit too apparent (a sign of the times I'm afraid), overall the cinematography is effective and attractive.
The soundtrack is also spot on, though not quite as original. Dark, crunchy and distorted sounds create an unsettling mood that adds to the overall atmosphere of the film. It has become the go-to solution for most horror films, because even when done half-arsed it's still quite effective. But I must say, even though the direction of the soundtrack is quite predictable, the execution is very well done and there were several moments when the soundtrack made a clear, notable and positive impact.
Actingwise there isn't anything to complain about either. Eline Kuppens does a good job as the lead character, but the standout performence comes from Matthias Schoenaerts. It's one of his early roles, well before his big international breakthrough, but even back then it was clear that Belgium wouldn't be big enough for him. He has a certain flair and charm that makes the rest of the cast better simply by being in the same scenes as him. There are some decent secondary parts too, but the film mostly leans on the interaction between Kuppens and Schoenaerts.
What starts as a pretty basic and straight-forward horror/thriller gets a lot freakier and weirder as the finale draws closer. Old cults and shady rituals make up the fabric of the last half hour, which sees Marie scrambling to make sense of it all. The last scene may be a twist too much, but it does fit the structure of the film, progressively spinning out of control as the film goes on. It also provides something to chew upon afterwards (and during a possible rewatch), if that's the kind of thing you like.
While Left Bank may not be the most daring of films, the execution is pretty flawless, something that is absolutely key for a solid genre film. The atmosphere is pleasantly bleak, dark and loaded, there's an enough audiovisual bravoure, the actors are on point and the plot keeps you guessing. Pieter Van Hees and the Karakatsanis brothers delivered a strong, intruiging and well executed genre film that is perfectly equipped to outlive the hype that sparked its existence. If you're looking for an interesting horror film, this one comes warmly recommended.