It All Happens In The Dark

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“These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated.”

Left Bank (2008)

At twenty-two, Marie (Eline Kuppens) leads a solitary and structured existence. She lives with her divorced mother (Marilou Mermans) who runs an organic food store from their home. She is a dedicated and talented athlete – running is the focal point of her life and she has little time for much else. As the film opens she is preparing for a competition where if she does well will qualify her to go to Portugal for the European Championships.

At the track following a session with her coach, she notices a handsome young man who is shooting bow and arrow. In the locker room after having showered and dressed, she is introduced to the archer when he comes in naked, asking if she has seen his clothes. They have been hidden and he borrows Marie’s towel so he can look for them. His name is Bobby.

At the competition Marie places second, which qualifies her for Portugal – something she should be quite pleased about. But she is disappointed and feels she could have had first place. When she comes out of the locker room, Bobby is waiting to congratulate her and return her towel. He offers her a ride home.

When Marie passes out and her doctor runs tests, he informs her that her blood is “bad” – it lacks magnesium and has little iron – and her immune system is weak. She needs to rest. The doctor strongly advises against the European Championship which is in three weeks and says that she should do nothing for a month. He warns her that if she continues on like this she may never be able to have children.

She is understandably bummed.

Marie goes on a date with Bobby, and after seeing a movie together they drive to his apartment in Left Bank. Marie is impressed with the location and says she has never known anyone who lived there. Bobby tells her that he just recently moved in and his grandmother is the caretaker so he gets a deal on the rent. Bobby is a car salesman by profession and is also the Dean of the Archer’s Guild – a group of enthusiasts devoted to recreating the art and sport of archery in its medieval form.

Bobby and Marie make love and afterwards he invites her to stay with him while she recuperates. Marie is uncertain at first but the next morning decides to take him up on the offer. Marie explains to her mother that if she stays with her for a month doing nothing they will both go crazy.

Marie has quite a lot of free time now, not being able to run and with Bobby at work during the day she is often by herself. One day a letter arrives for the tenant who previously occupied Bobby’s flat. Marie begins to meet the neighbors when Veerle (Sara De Bosschere) and her daughter, Katriene (Siska Bouwen) stop by and introduce themselves. Marie mentions the letter and Veerle is surprised that Marie doesn’t know the story of the previous tenant. Hella (Ruth Becquart) used to live in the apartment until she disappeared. No one knows what happened to her. (Well, we do, sort of – in the film’s opening we see Hella studying the blueprints of a building and making a notation: “Cellar 51.” As she investigates what we must assume to be the fifty-first cellar she disappears into blackness.) Veerle mentions that she has a box she found which belongs to Hella and fetches it. Hella had a fiance Veerle tells Marie and he asked if anything came for her to phone him.

Marie does call Hella’s fiance, Dirk (Tom De Wispelaere) and he tells Marie to throw out the letter and the box and not to call him again. Later, he turns up at the apartment one evening when Bobby is out and Marie’s mother has unexpectedly dropped in. He apologizes for being short with Marie on the phone and asks if she still has Hella’s items. She does, and she gives them to Dirk. Inside is the “Cellar 51” note, and some photos of Left Bank – a very old one, when the area was mostly undeveloped and a current one, with the buildings now standing in the area. Dirk explains that Hella was doing research on Left Bank – he tells them that back in the day Left Bank was a part of the city where outcasts were sent – freaks, people with the plague, those believed to be witches. The place had quite a reputation, in no small part due to a black pit which was called “cunnus diaboli” – the diabolical vagina.

Marie decides to start some light running, because doing nothing during the day means she is not tired enough to sleep at night. While she is out jogging, she falls and tears the cartilage in her knee, a painful looking injury that it will take two months of physical therapy to repair.

Marie and Dirk decide to further investigate the history of Left Bank, and they get a hell of a lot more than they bargained for.

From the first frame this very Polanski-esque film cultivates potent tension and never once takes a wrong step. So effortlessly does the surreal creep into the film – are we seeing a dream? A hallucination? A warning from the future? The director, Peter Van Hees, has quite an eye for composition and the film is a showcase of beautiful, arresting images. There are an amazing amount of niches and hollows on display here that strikingly resemble female genitalia – I’m sure this is no accident as it adds emphasis to the themes of the film. The climax is a marvel – in lesser hands it could have sank the whole film but it is pulled off with skillful aplomb.

As much credit as those behind the cameras should get for their exemplary work – so too should Eline Kuppens be equally praised as her performance is largely responsible for the success of the film – she carries this, boy does she ever, and creates a captivating, intelligent heroine who never falls into cliche. It is a joy to watch such riveting acting in such an expertly made film.

It has been quite a while since I’ve seen a film this satisfying. It stuns me that more people have not caught on – works of this caliber come along so rarely, especially in this genre. This is how you do horror, folks. A

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