×

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.

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Donald Trump’s use of the word to describe the city of Brussels, through which the film prowls, has been superseded by so much Trumpian bluster since that non-Belgians may find themselves struggling to make the connection.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

Popular on Variety

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

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content