Linkeroever (English title: Left Bank). 2008. Directed by Pieter van Hees. Screenplay by van Hees, Christophe Dirickx, & Dimitri Karakatsanis.
Starring Eline Kuppens, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sien Eggers, Marilou Mermans, Frank Vercruyssen, Robbie Cleiren, Ruth Becquart, Tinneke Boonen, Tom Dewispelaere, & Bert Haelvoet.
Caviar Films/Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
The following discussion will be filled with MAJOR SPOILERS
Trust me when I tell you: you’ve never seen a movie like Pieter van Hees’ Left Bank.
Okay, maybe you have. Who knows. But not many horror movies start out with an unknown happy ending just waiting to be discovered at the end of the terror-filled rainbow.
Van Hees aims for lofty goals. The screenplay touches on everything from the ancient concept of Ouroboros to Greek mythology, to bringing Samhain into the mix. Best of all, the plot hides what juicy story lies at its centre. When you think you’re watching one thing, the finale – and what you go back to think about afterwards – switches up the thought process to encompass something altogether different.
The first time you watch Left Bank it’s a mystery. Then, if you dig it, you watch again. True meaning shows itself. Slowly there are themes of reincarnation, the rebirth of existence and nature in a cyclical process. You find all the tiny moments, the bits of dialogue, which point towards more than your average horror. And after watching a few times, the dark beating heart of the film suddenly blossoms to reveal a shockingly positive tale.
Hees consistently goes back to images of nature. Specifically, the first few are all instances of nature in its primordial stages – a messy, muddy shore by the water near the Left Bank apartments, fledgling grass amongst a cold, dry landscape. Then the imagery changes to show us a tree, although it’s wilted. However, you have to recognise the way it’s changing behind everything; or better yet, why. After the first time Marie (Eline Kuppens) and Bobby (Matthias Schoenaerts) make love, she later finds dirt in her underwear. A gross, odd image, indeed. There’s more to that. It’s after this event we see the nature begin changing. The restoration of the nature in Left Bank runs parallel to Marie and her body horror-like experience. Soon after an injury, a swollen knee is a manifestation of her body building up all the negativity surrounding her life, and the trees become more prominent now, green grass nearby. During the final scene we watch as a mouse – a symbol of fertility – crawls out of the busted knee, right before Marie goes for an eerie trip through the Diabolic Vagina, as it’s called in the film. Essentially, she goes into the birth canal this dragon cult Bobby’s involved in have created.
These ideas are best exemplified when we take a look at the first and last shots, as well as the progression between them. First is that muddy shoreline; awhile later there are glimpses of the Left Bank tenements where no plant life is thriving, nothing green. By the time we’ve reached the last shot, after the climactic and revelatory finale, nature is all but exploding out in front of the apartment complex. We finish on a gorgeous shot of flowers starting to bloom, vibrant green grass, sitting right out front of the ugly building. The beginning is a sombre opener. And even though by the end we’ve journeyed through a chamber of horrors, the resolution is positive, happy; a literal reincarnation ends us not on that muddy shore, but on a lush field of green with flowers of spring fresh for a new beginning.
People have knocked this online for not being coherent enough. I argue that you have to dig into the plot and the imagery in order to find the answers. So, naturally, this isn’t what the majority of horror viewers out there are probably seeking out. Not shitting on anybody. It’s fine if you’d rather something more concrete. But don’t take a movie down simply because it isn’t your bag. Left Bank is impressive in scope, as Hees takes on the idea of reincarnation through a twisting, turning, labyrinthine horror rife with mystery.
His best clue is the necklace Bobby wears: the dragon eating its tail, perpetually rebirthing itself, over and over and over. This is the symbol of Ouroboros – in Greek this is “oura” (tail) and “boros” (eating). Ultimately, this symbolises the ‘eternal return’ that posits existence has been recurring and will continue to do so in a self-similar form an infinite amount of times across infinite time and space.
An example from the film? In the end, Marie is reborn as a child through the Diabolic Vagina. When she comes out, she is a baby in the arms of Hella (Ruth Becquart) – the woman who disappeared at the start, Dirk’s partner. In fact, her parents now seem to be Hella and her coach Gilbert (Frank Vercruyssen). Why, exactly? Earlier, and a few times, Bobby tells Marie he wants to fix her life, to make her happy, and even talks about how she’s never truly happen when she runs. This links back to Gilbert telling her not to be so hard on herself for not winning races, that “winning isn‘t everything,” and he’s more positive than her mother has ever been. Gilbert is a father figure to her, and Hella was hoping to get pregnant (while Dirk wasn’t prepared for children). After her reincarnation, life has been fixed, and Marie’s existence renews, beginning once more. Just like the dragon eats itself constantly, life through the Diabolic Vagina allows human beings the same gift.
One thing I kept thinking about is the mouse in Marie’s knee. This is a purge of all the negativity. In line with the idea of Ouroboros, Carl Jung said that this concept is the idea that one “slays himself” and “brings himself to life” through this view of existence. So while Marie must enter the pit, basically drowning (as others turned up dead having supposedly drowned over the years in that same pit), she simultaneously is bringing herself to life, just a new one yet in the same ever flowing process of existence. A head trip, but a good trip.
Also note that Bobby, in those last moments around the pit, is dressed – in terrifying fashion – like a kind of dragon.
Not everyone will agree with what I think about Left Bank. To me, these theories make the film a unique one amongst the horror genre. It is mysterious, exciting, and grim. Somewhere along the line it crosses over from being horrific into something beautiful. If you understand the concepts behind the cult at the centre of the story, if you pay attention to the finale, you can’t ignore that.
There is a ton of amazing horror imagery. Just the pit itself, the basement, is a production design dream! Plus, van Hees does well with his co-writers to craft an interesting, cryptic, and tough though rewarding thriller. Those who don’t like to think may as well turn around and never bother watching this Belgian flick.
I give this a 5 star rating because I genuinely feel it’s perfect. If you don’t like what it’s saying, fine, or if you think it doesn’t execute the aims appropriately – that’s fine, too. Although I urge you, big time – read what I’ve said. Watch Left Bank. Write down some notes if you have to, I don’t care. But come back for a real discussion once you’ve dissected this one a bit. There’s way more beneath the surface than anyone else leads you to believe. And I’ve only touched on the tip of the iceberg.