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By Matthew Sorrento | July 27, 2009

Hell is upon us in the opening minutes of the Belgian film “Left Bank,” especially if we think of hell as a state of mind. Portentous imagery tosses narrative clarity aside, as director Pieter Van Hees commits to surreal sensations that allow for little hope. Here we have something of an abstract exhibit: mutable imagery cuts to a bleached-out shore that suggests a cold sensation we may feel after death.

Intriguing at first, this take soon seems convenient, in that Van Hees avoids presenting a character who would experience the sizable dread. Yet, just as we lament, we meet Marie (Eline Kuppens), a driven runner who struggles to satisfy her ambitions. While training for a top competition, Marie rarely menstruates – not uncommon for such athletes – before her body starts failing from right under her. One period seems like a lifetime’s worst before she starts expelling illogical matter, like black soot, as she grows ill. Pregnancy, she wonders? Likely not, a doctor says, and if she were, we’d be heading to “Rosmary’s Baby”-land, Dali-style. Although this body-rotting sounds hollow, like a ploy to shock, Van Hees takes note from early Cronenberg. Marie’s plight is more about the anxiety of our bodies failing us than just the gruesome results (though we have plenty).

No doubt about it – Marie is a vehicle to fuse Van Hees’s surreal inspirations to the everyday. His goal is in sight once we learn of a porthole in nearby soil that locals describe with vaginal associations. Some dialog exposition informs that it was once used by druid worship. Too often women are pawns in a horror director’s devious games. Yet Van Hees seems fascinated by his character in spite of his genre’s tradition, and fashions her into a full-blooded free-spiriter now coming of age. The kind of girl that frat boys would say is too jocky to be hot, she is quite passionate, we learn, when she hooks up with Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts). (They first meet in the girls locker room when Bobby, in the buff, claims his buddy stole his clothes.) He seems the perfect means for her to release tension, which we see in some graphic sex scenes that are more passionate than horned-up. Her sharp breaths in coitus sure grab attention, though they prove that Van Hees’s character is real and that Kuppens has found her.

But there’s business to be had in this romantic drama-cum-surreal horror piece. Before long we see that Bobby is sort of shady. His archery acumen may just point to the mysterious history of the Left Bank area. Kudos go to Van Hees for finding the drama in his blended bag of passion, creeps, and head-scratches. We care so much about the charming cutie Marie that we’re tied in knots once she at death’s door.

Paranoia has already risen as darkness descends upon the climax. Any illogic that could annoy us drowns in the audience’s pure dread.

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