Celebrated Belgian visual artist and shorts filmmaker Nicolas Provost tackles involving, yet impenetrable story of an illegal African immigrant who strikes up a relationship with a white woman in Brussels.

Celebrated Belgian visual artist and shorts filmmaker Nicolas Provost (“Stardust”) tackles a complex topic in his first feature, “The Invader,” though the frosh helmer tries so hard to avoid cliches that his story becomes impenetrable. Story of an illegal African immigrant who strikes up a relationship with a white woman in Brussels is mostly involving, but too enigmatic to say anything concrete about either the couple’s odd co-dependency or how they might be read as metaphors for North-South relations. Beyond sprocket operas looking for films with a topical edge, this is strictly niche fare.

Pic’s strongest moments are its first and last scenes, which seem conceived as stand-alone shorts. An audacious opening Steadicam shot starts with a rather unusual anatomical closeup on a nudist beach. The camera then follows the body parts’ owner (Hannelore Knuts, the helmer’s g.f.) as she gets up and walks toward the sea, where several African men, probably shipwrecked, are struggling to come ashore.

D.p. Franck Van Den Eeden follows the woman until she rests her eye — and the camera zooms in on — the face and naked bust of a particularly well-built man, Amadou (Issaka Sawadogo). Provost then ends the long take and cuts to a similar medium closeup shot of the naked woman, turning his opening into a potent succession of dialogue-free images, filled with the characters’ curiosity, admiration and even desire for each other, but practically devoid of political tension.

But as Provost abandons the sun-drenched beach for cold-looking Brussels, and until the pic’s closing scene, he fails to come up with any similarly memorable moments of filmmaking.

Via a tunnel sequence (which uses a mirror technique Provost employed more effectively in “Papillon d’Amour”), auds are transported to the Euro capital. Captured in flat, drably colored and antiseptic shots, this is a city with a distinct lack of warmth and a constant sense of hostility lurking in the shadows.

Amadou works illegally in construction while trying to care for an ill man (Dieudonne Kabongo) from his home country. Together with countless other immigrants, they are allowed for awhile to squat in an abandoned building controlled by Amadou’s shady employers, at least, until he’s forced out.

When Amadou spies an attractive businesswoman, he becomes obsessed with her and follows her around like a madman — instead of worrying about where he might sleep that night or get something to eat. In one of the pic’s numerous instances of misplaced humor, he finally introduces himself to her as “Mr. Obama,” a fellow businessman. Judging by her name, the woman, Agnes (Stefania Rocca), is a local, though this is not borne out by Italo thesp Rocca’s terrible delivery in French (the cadences of the language are a mystery to her).

Amadou/Obama’s obsession with Agnes has stalker-ish qualities, especially since it’s never clear whether he’s taken by a severe case of amour fou or believes that bedding this particular rich woman will get him ahead in life. Since he’s not much of talker, and Provost offers little else, Amadou remains a handsome mystery man.

Agnes, meanwhile, is stuck in a relationship with her dull technocrat hubby (Tibo Vandenborre), so she’s not against some hot sex with a well-built black man, though she’s quick to reject his advances when he wants more. This leads to the pic’s final, especially murky stretch. Though Sawadogo’s a charismatic enough performer to never let auds lose interest in his character, his actions are without motivation, so it’s hard to finally care, and impossible to read anything deeper into the couple’s rapport.

Newcomer Provost clearly struggles with the demands of sustaining a longer narrative, in terms of storytelling as well as visuals, with occasionally awkward cuts between establishing shots and closer views. Unmemorable score doesn’t offer auds any clues.

The Invader

Belgium

Production

An O'Brother Distribution release of a Versus Prod. production, in association with Prime Time, Hepp Film. (International sales: Bac Films, Paris.) Produced by Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart. Co-producers, Antonino Lombardo, Helena Danielsson. Directed by Nicolas Provost. Screenplay, Provost, Giordano Gederlini, Francois Pirot.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Franck Van Den Eeden; editor, Nico Leunen; music, Sacha Galperine, Evgueni Galperine; art director, Francoise Joset; costume designer, Nathalie Leborgne; sound (Dolby Digital), Senjan Jansen; line producer, X; assistant director, David Oeyen; casting, Michael Bier, Kadija Leclere, Nicolas Ronchi. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 4, 2011. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Discovery; San Sebastian Film Festival -- Zabaltegi Pearls.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Issaka Sawadogo, Stefania Rocca, Serge Riaboukine, Dieudonne Kabongo, Tibo Vandenborre, Hannelore Knuts. (French, English, Moore dialogue)

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