Berlin Film Review: ‘Hellhole’

Post-attack Brussels is the setting and the star of Bas Devos' opaque, oblique evocation of low-level urban dissociation and despair.

Bas Devos
Hamza Belarbi, Alba Rohrwacher, Willy Thomas, Lubna Azabal. (Dutch, French, English, Italian dialogue)

1 hour 29 minutes

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then-candidate Donald Trump’s use of the word to describe the city of Brussels, through which the film prowls, has been superseded by so much Trumpian bluster since that non-Belgians may find themselves struggling to make the connection.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.

Berlin Film Review: 'Hellhole'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 11, 2019. Running Time: 89 MIN.

Production: (Belgium-Netherlands) A Minds Meet production in co-production with Phanta Film, Shelter Prod. (International Sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Producers: Tomas Leyers, Marc Goyens.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Bas Devos. Camera (Color): Nicolas Karakatsanis. Editor: Dieter Diependaele. Music: James Leyland Kirby.

With: Hamza Belarbi, Alba Rohrwacher, Willy Thomas, Lubna Azabal. (Dutch, French, English, Italian dialogue)

More Film

  • dolittle-DRD_Tsr1Sht_1011_RGB_4_rgb-1

    Robert Downey Jr. Embarks on Perilous Journey in First 'Dolittle' Trailer (Watch)

    Robert Downey Jr. is setting sail with some furry friends in the first trailer for “Dolittle,” Universal Pictures’ reimagining of the classic story about a man who could speak to animals. “We have no choice but to embark on this perilous journey,” he says. Set to a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” [...]

  • Parasite

    Bong Joon Ho's 'Parasite' Posts Powerful Opening in North America

    Bong Joon-Ho’s dark comedy “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has launched with a spectacular $376,264 at three U.S. theaters.  Neon opened “Parasite” at the The Landmark and Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles and at the IFC Center in New York, where it broke the opening record set by 2014’s “Boyhood.” Its per-screen average [...]

  • Joker Movie

    'Joker' Dominates International Box Office With $124 Million

    “Joker” is showing impressive traction internationally with a second weekend of $123.7 million on 24,149 screens in 79 markets — a holdover decline of just 29%. Joaquin Phoenix’s psychological thriller has totaled $351.2 million outside North America after only 12 days in release. And with $192 million in domestic grosses, “Joker” has now topped $543 [...]

  • Joker

    'Joker' Remains Box Office Ruler With $55 Million

    Joaquin Phoenix is king of the North American box office once again as “Joker” scores an easy victory in its second weekend with $55 million at 4,374 sites. “Joker” dominated a trio of new entries with animated comedy “The Addams Family” leading the rest of pack with $30.3 million at 4,007 venues, topping forecasts. Will [...]

  • French director Bertrand Tavernier attends the

    Bertrand Tavernier on Coppola, Scorsese, Cayatte, Cinema’s Bright Future

    Veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight”) – president and director of the Institut Lumière and Lumière Festival, which he co-manages with Cannes’ Thierry Frémaux – has played a pivotal role in restoring classic French films and defending the importance of French directors, such as Claude Autant Lara, Henri Decoin and André Cayatte, who were [...]

  • 'Philharmonia'

    French Series 'Philharmonia' Sells to the U.K., the U.S. and Australia (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Philharmonia,” a French thriller series set in the world of a national orchestra, has been acquired in English-speaking territories from Lagardere Studios Distribution. “Philharmonia,” which was created and co-written by Marine Gacem, has been acquired by First Look Media’s Topic for SVOD rights in the U.S., and Walter Presents for the U.K. and Australia. “Philharmonia” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content