Lonely Belgiums struggle to find human warmth on a bleak semi-industrial landscape in actor-turned-helmer Bouli Lanners’ impressive feature debut “Ultranova.” Though predominantly melancholy in tone, pic is speckled with enough bone-dry humor, albeit of the bitter sort, to lighten the wintry atmosphere. Finely composed widescreen lensing, shot on Super 16mm, and charming deadpan perfs enhance a package that will appeal to arthouse auds inclined toward quirky stories about semi-beautiful losers. Although unquestionably niche, pic could do similar business to minor Belgian hit “Aaltra,” in which the helmer had a minor role as a Finnish singer.
Set in and around the sea-level flat landscape of Liege in Belgium, characters interconnect gradually. Pale, sad-eyed Dimitri (Vincent Lecuyer, who starred in 2004 prize-winning Cannes short “Alice and Me”) lives in a scruffy ’60s housing project, but has a steady job selling furnished starter homes in a development that recalls the soggy, suburban tract-house hell in Atom Egoyan’s “The Adjuster.” His imaginative neighbor Jeanne (Marie du Bled), who works in a local warehouse, explains to her best friend Cathy (Helene De Reymaeker) that he’s an orphan who lost his family at age 12, a rumor Dimitri neither confirms nor denies.
When Cathy and Dimitri are accidentally brought together by a distraught neighbor (Philippe Grand’Henry in a vivid cameo) looking for his lost dog, they begin a timid courtship. Typical trysting spots for the awkward couple include park benches near electricity substations and crumbling concrete quays that look out over the barges passing on the river, the latter a spot where Cathy callously breaks Dimitri’s heart.
Meanwhile, Dimitri’s colleagues are wracked by vaguely sketched anxieties of their own. His married best pal Philippe (Michael Abiteboul) pines for pregnant women, while uptight Jean-Claude (Vincent Belorgey) has a bizarre phobia about a street beggar. In one of the pic’s many affecting wordless scenes, Jean-Claude is seen tearfully steering a car around a practice-driving course, tears running down his face. The cause of his pain is never spelled out, although its effect comes as a sudden third-act shock.
Lanners’ fat-free script sneaks up sideways on its big theme, the sense of powerlessness felt by those in dead-end jobs, prey to the forces of fate. One character gouges her own hand to change her life line; another interprets the sudden and unprovoked inflation of a car’s air bag as a supernatural sign.
As per pic’s poster image of an upside-down car, everything can flip from bad to worse in a second. Helmer, whose alternative career as a landscape painter is evident, follows humorous moments with ominous bursts of minor chords on the soundtrack that instill a sense of foreboding. His cast of little-known thesps, each excellent, channel a sense of anxiety with remarkably little dialogue and manage to sustain energy over the pic’s trademark long takes.
Tech credits are impressive on what appears to be a small budget, with dun-colored lensing by Jean-Paul De Zaeytijd and purposefully distorted sound editing making up the standout elements.