The kind of drama such a bombastic title suggests is scrupulously avoided in Belgian director Bas Devos’ heavy-lidded “Hellhole,” an uncannily beautiful but forbiddingly remote exercise in sculptural, sepulchral filmmaking. Even the reference, to then-candidate Donald Trump’s use of the word to describe the city of Brussels, through which the film prowls, has been superseded by so much Trumpian bluster since that non-Belgians may find themselves struggling to make the connection. And the connection is itself vaguely confusing, because while Devos’ love for his city does pulse up from beneath the Teflon camerawork, the mournfulness of his portrait of a sleepwalking citizenry still low-level reeling from the 2016 Brussels terror attacks undercuts any potential irony. This may not be a vision of hell, but it sure feels like purgatory.
The attacks themselves are scarcely mentioned, though at times a character will speak of some omnipresent fear, or a sleep disorder, or a recurring migraine, in such a way we infer they’re recent developments, symptoms of a newly acquired, citywide malaise. Indeed, an outline of their ailments is about as much characterization as we get for the three principal humans, who only glancingly connect in a film that often lingers on spaces devoid of people, interspersing the inaction with palate-cleanser shots of a featureless pale sky.
Wannes (Will Thomas) is a doctor who seems shadowed by death even in his off-hours, as he spends his evenings with his sister keeping vigil over a dying relative or Skyping his son, a fighter pilot on a tour in the Middle East. Mehdi (a soulful Hamza Belarbi) is a young Belgian of Algerian extraction plagued by blinding headaches, and Alba (Alba Rohrwacher) is a solitary translator at the European Parliament who pursues oblivion through clubbing and casual sex, but may be developing narcolepsy.
Just as important as the people are the spaces in which they’re photographed, in “I, Tonya” DP Nicolas Karakatsanis’ sublimely silky camerawork, which is given ample time to glide around corners or slink sinuously past windows by editor Dieter Diependaele’s sedate cutting rhythm. So, while fragments of storylines occasionally coalesce for each of the three characters — Wannes goes on a date, Mehdi’s older brother asks him to steal from their father, Alba is suspended for falling asleep on the job — these narrative strands seem almost incidental, as though the meandering camera has just happened across them, and remain largely unresolved.
The impression we get instead is of a far-removed, drone-like intelligence personified in the camera’s coolly appraising gaze, which finds as much interest in the seams of the city’s concrete facades or the joinery of its brickwork as it does the fissures in the personalities if its traumatized inhabitants. The point is superlatively well-made — one transcendent shot in particular seems to graze against some higher truth when it completes a slow, perfectly alien 360-degree circuit of a house in which two living characters are reacting to the death of a third — but the masterful evocation of dissociation inevitably makes for a dissociative experience.
Part of Devos’ agenda, with his second feature after the well-received “Violet” (which also dealt with grief and loss but on a more intimate scale), seems to be to create a sense of absence. It’s as though the attacks opened up faultlines through the city’s metaphysical infrastructure, into which disappeared lives, security, and perhaps a more innocent conception of Brussels as a place where such a thing could never happen (the coordinated suicide bombings at the airport and the metro left 32 civilians dead and hundreds injured in the worst terrorist incident in Belgian history). Strangely enough, the times this is best achieved may well be during the title sequences. At the start, the word “Hellhole” appears missing the “o” and at the end, the cast and crew names are rendered as two massive blocks of text, pockmarked with erasures where their credited role fades up later. It evokes the scroll of names on a war memorial, and reminds us, with those graphic gaps, of the missing.
But elsewhere, it’s the very control and the intellectualized elegance of the aesthetic that works against such resonance. It is hard to feel a sense of loss here — hard to feel anything at all — when the filmmaking is so complete. A peculiar coda reinforces the glassy remove: in another unearthly 360-degree shot, we circle a fighter jet idling in a hangar. It’s a sinister, unpeopled image that perfectly sums up Devos’ distinctive, difficult, draining “Hellhole” in being beautifully precision engineered, implacably smooth and all but totally impregnable.