Thursday 18 October 2018

Etangs Noirs (Pieter Dumoulin / Timeau De Keyser, 2018)

Named after the Brussels Metro station (which you might know as Zwarte Vijvers), Etangs Noirs is a modest yet thoroughly absorbing movie which provides incontrovertible proof of how the journey can be infinitely more interesting than the destination.  This Belgian production features strong writing and well-judged performances, and although its London Film Festival performance today is currently showing as sold out, it might be worth checking just before the screening to see if any returns are available.

The premise is a simple one: Jimi, a rather earnest young man, receives a package at his Cité Modèle apartment; while the apartment number is correct, the parcel was actually intended for Sayenna, who lives in the next building.  Jimi attempts to deliver the parcel to Sayenna, but she's out, and her elderly neighbour isn't much help.  Most of us have found ourselves in a similar situation at one time or another, and our options are usually fairly straightforward: leave the parcel outside the door; find a neighbour who'll agree to take it; or leave a note with contact details.  Jimi doesn't exercise any of these options - he even has the chance to lob the parcel through an open window - but appears hellbent on delivering the parcel personally.  And that's his first mistake.

Obviously, if Jimi took the expected course (or if Sayenna was at home) then we wouldn't have much of a film, but his determination to literally deliver leads him on an odyssey across Brussels, where he spends plenty of time riding the Metro as he tries to track down the elusive Sayenna.  Does she even exist?  Does Jimi have some sort of relationship to Sayenna and/or the unknown contents of the box he ferries around?  Jimi is a polite, solemn but rather jumpy young man, and we start to wonder if this is all as routine as simply sorting out an incorrectly delivered package.  While in Sayenna's building, Jimi encounters the disconcertingly over-friendly Benny, who promptly enlists Jimi's help in catching his escaped canaries before offering to take care of the parcel.  Benny frequently sees Sayenna around in the hallways of the building - or at least that's what he says.

There's something in Jimi's plight that most of us will be able to relate to - the simple five-minute job which soon escalates into a major drama, and Jimi's obsession with his task soon takes over both his days and nights. There's something of Scorsese's After Hours at play here, although this is an altogether significantly more muted affair.  The filmmakers prove especially adroit when it comes to putting us in Jimi's shoes, yet the viewer will almost certainly feel a helpless frustration rarely betrayed by the rather inscrutable protagonist; it's an impressive balancing act which endures for the film's duration.  With its atmospheric shots of the endless subterranean corridors of the Brussels Metro, Etangs Noirs stands as a haunting, engrossing and frequently unnerving tale, told with refreshing economy.

Darren Arnold 

Images: Accattone Films