(Flemish and French dialogue)
The most striking debut by a 51-year-old director in memory, “Out of Range” is more style than substance but hits its chosen target with almost unerring accuracy. Falling somewhere between art movie and gun-popping conspiracy thriller, this atmospheric, in-your-face drama based on a series of real-life killings in Belgium has already provoked controversy at home and should prove a nifty midnight number on the festival circuit. But pic’s lack of easy categorization will make it a tough theatrical sell in foreign markets, where the sensitive nature of its source material will mean little and the film is more likely to be seen as a flashy addition to the growing body of Euro gun yarns. Film is set to set to hit U.S. landfall at the Chicago fest in October.
Pic opened May 20 in Belgium through Flemish-owned distrib-exhib Kinepolis, after being turned down by French-owned distrib UGC on the grounds of “fears about rioting.” Despite its subject matter and scenes of violence, however, local censors gave it an all-ages rating. After a week of release, the movie was mysteriously bumped from screens in French-speaking towns.
Taking as its inspiration the still-unsolved killing of 34 people by the so-called Nivelles Gang in the ’80s, the script, by helmer Julien Vrebos and three other writers, constructs a nightmare scenario of neo-fascist forces sowing social chaos through unmotivated slayings and blackmailing the establishment in order to take control of the country’s levers of power. Collusion is shown to extend through the police force and underworld.
All of this emerges gradually from the highly directed pic, which starts with the shooting of a diplomat, Toussaint, his mistress and two cops by assassins in white masks (hence the movie’s ironic French title, “The Masked Ball”). First reel is a stylistic tour de force of editing, sound and camerawork — with snippets of music, lensing that switches from extreme close-ups through whip-pans to neatly composed long shots, and a soundtrack that sounds like it’s on steroids whenever there’s any action.
Though almost subliminal (and totally confusing) on a narrative level, the opening is a striking call to attention by Vrebos, who then slowly applies the brakes and clarifies the personalities. Leading the investigation team is uptight French-speaking policewoman Eva Siccard (Alexandra Vandernoot), who finds there’s mysteriously missing evidence and roadblocks placed in her way. Unwillingly, she asks the help of unconventional Flemish cop Peter Daerden (Peter van den Begin), whose g.f. is an exotic dancer named Kristl (Pascale Bal).
Murky plot involves a wealthy right-wing baron (Raymond Gerome) who, in cahoots with the secret service, is videotaping higher-ups (including royalty) in pedophile parties at a nightclub where Kristl dances. Toussaint, it emerges, was a double agent killed by the baron’s chief terrorist, Sophie (Natacha Amal), who’s also in charge of spreading panic through anarchist attacks on shopping malls. As Peter taps into his contacts in the secret service, he finds his life threatened.
Were it not for the real-life events on which the pic is based, the yarn might seem like a fevered, not especially believable dime novel, but the subject matter has clearly touched local sensitivities in Belgium. For those unacquainted with the background, the movie plays like a semi-arthouse Euro version of Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thrillers of the early ’70s (especially “The Parallax View”), but with the visuals raised to a level of extreme stylization. Plot is relayed in a fragmentary, piecemeal fashion, climaxing ina genuinely shocking massacre in a supermarket by white-masked gunmen in which the only sound is that of pump-guns being recharged.
Vrebos, a former photographer, radio reporter and TV director, directs with enormous technical assurance on a minimal $ 2 million tab, creating one after another memorable widescreen composition and exploring the full dynamic range of the iron-hard digital soundtrack. From the white masks of the gunmen to the costumes of the women (Kristl always in lime green, Eva in blue), color is used to evocative effect. Characters are more figurines than rounded personalities, though thesps are all well cast, and apart from a slight dip midway the movie generally maintains its running time.