The return of Alex Stockman
The news that Alex Stockman is shooting his second feature film means that he can finally be removed from the long list of Flemish cinema's missing-in-action. After an impressive debut in 2000 with Verboden te zuchten, he seemed to vanish, only to pop up again in 2003 as one of the producers of Tom Barman's excellent Anywhere the Wind Blows. (Speaking of which, where is his second film?)
While waiting for the long-absent director’s new film, go hunt down the first
In 2006 there was a spooky short film by Stockman, Eva reste au placard les nuits de pleine lune (Eva stays in the cupboard on nights of the full moon), about a disabled man who becomes able-bodied for one night every month. This screened at the Venice Film Festival, but then nothing more was heard of its director - until this year. He is shooting the new feature film Pulsar in Brussels with rising Flemish star Matthias Schoenaerts (Loft, De Smaak van De Keyser).
It will be a while before we see Pulsar, but to whet the appetite it is now possible to rent or buy Verboden te zuchten on DVD. Literally translated as "No Sighing", the film is variously known in French as The Presentiment or in English as I Know I'll See Your Face Again. Clearly an elusive character.
At the centre of the film is 26-year-old Joris (Stefan Perceval), who has decided to leave his girlfriend, Valerie, and Brussels. But just as he is arriving at South Station something stops him in his tracks. He turns aside and checks into an old hotel. From now on he is in suspension, brooding over his situation and whether or not he should leave. He hangs around the hotel or walks the streets, occasionally stopping to leave telephone messages for his friends, apparently reporting in from cities on the way to Portugal.
A chance encounter leads him to Louis (Senne Rouffaer), an elderly man of doubtful qualification who claims to be a doctor, and in turn to Luzie (Stefanie Bodien), a young woman who appears to have the same sense of dislocation as Joris. They wander the city together, and a romance seems to bloom, but then Luzie disappears into the night.
Verboden te zuchten feels like a dream. It is filmed in luminous black and white, without the restless camera movements that characterise so much independent cinema. Joris appears to go unnoticed by the people around him, like a phantom witnessing what happens after he has left town. Only other people who are equally detached really seem to see him: a tramp who promises to come to his aid if he ever needs it, men passing their days in bars, the precocious daughter of the hotel owner, the deluded doctor. These fragmentary encounters and rambling conversations seem innocuous, and yet they build into a strong narrative that is resolved by his meeting with Luzie.
It is also one of the best films ever made about Brussels, bringing to life the peculiar atmosphere around South Station before the developers moved in and illuminating the city's other dead zones, such as the multi-story car park off Anspachlaan where Joris and Luzie romantically while away an afternoon.
Early reports of Pulsar suggest that it takes place in similar territory. Schoenaerts plays Samuel, a young man who starts to lose touch with reality when his girlfriend goes to New York on a work assignment. He doesn't go crazy, but on a very subtle, emotional level he separates from everyday life. Slowly the tone of the film switches to follow him into this detached state of mind.
Verboden te zuchten is subtitled in English, French and Dutch; extras include the short film In de vlucht and an interview with the director