'Pulsar'

A taut little thriller that's big on atmosphere, if low on budget.

Tapping into contempo paranoia about computer hackers and privacy in the Internet age with a romantic twist, Belgian drama “Pulsar” is a taut little thriller that’s big on atmosphere, if low on budget. Second feature from writer-helmer Alex Stockman relies heavily on watchable lead thesp Matthias Schoenaerts, here playing a twentysomething who, despite an abundance of friends and all the latest communication gizmos at his disposal, grows increasingly isolated in his Brussels apartment. “Pulsar” will hardly be astronomically successful, even domestically, but could orbit fests and ancillary circuits as a cult item.

At first, medical courier Samuel (Schoenaerts) copes well when his g.f., Mireille (Tine van den Wyngaert), goes to New York for an internship at an architectural firm. The two regularly phone, email, text, instant-message and video-conference one another, although Mireille becomes increasingly distracted by the fun she’s having in Gotham.

One day, Samuel finds he can’t log in to his network because another, unknown user has locked him out. He calls in the services of several IT specialists to reset his passwords and reboot his home network, but the problem persists. Technology further conspires to feed his paranoia that Mireille is drifting away from him: He can hear her flirting with a colleague on a voicemail she accidentally leaves him, and fails to take up his offers to chat via instant message. And then, someone — maybe Samuel not in his right mind, or maybe a hacker — uses Samuel’s email address to split up with her, pretending to be Samuel. Is he being hacked, or is he suffering from some kind of mental breakdown?

Helmer Stockman (whose first feature was “I Know I’ll See Your Face Again”) builds tension and maintains aud interest surprisingly well, considering the script calls on its protagonist to spend so much time sitting and typing at a computer monitor. Unfortunately, the plot fizzles out into oblique, inconclusive mutterings in the final reel, as if it had exhausted all the points it wanted to make about alienation in the era of instant communication, and can’t be bothered to tie up the loose ends.

Sebastien Koeppel’s widescreen lensing, on proper film stock, consistently impresses, especially the striking lighting setups, which add a sense of menace and, contrapuntally, show off the dainty prettiness of the Brussels locations used. Sound design by Senjan Jansen is aces, and meshes imperceptibly with spooky, yearning nonsource music by Guy van Nuetten.

Pulsar

Belgium

Production

A Corridor production, with the support of Flanders Audiovisual Fund, CCA, Centre du Cinema et de l'Audiovisuel de la Communaute Francaise de Belgique et des Teledistributeurs Wallons, with the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. (International sales: Corridor, Brussels.) Produced by Kaat Camerlynck, Alex Stockman. Directed, written by Alex Stockman.

Crew

Camera (color), Sebastien Koeppel; editor, Nico Neunen; music, Guy van Nueten; production designer, Jeff Otte; sound (Dolby Digital), Christian Monheim; sound designer, Senjan Jansen; re-recording mixers, Mathieu Cok. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Filmmakers of the Present), Aug. 11, 2010. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Matthias Schoenaerts, Tine van den Wyngaert, Sien Eggers, Vincent Lecuyer, Nico Sturm, Gordon Wilson. (Flemish, French, English dialogue)
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more