In Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, Juliette Binoche’s character Anne rides the Paris metro and is spat at by a young man with darker skin. In Bas Devos’ Hellhole, Alba Rohrwacher’s character rides the underground in Brussels and looks on as armed police survey her fellow passengers, who also have darker skin.
In Haneke’s pre-9/11 film the European dream of multinational cities was fading. In Hellhole, a film haunted by the 2016 Brussels bombings, that dream is well and truly dead. Devos is a Flemish filmmaker whose previous work, Violet, focused on the survivor’s guilt of a suburban kid who watched on as his friend was stabbed to death. Hellhole is also a film that watches on, like Alba on the subway. Indeed, Devos never goes for the jugular like Haneke but he’s poaching the same emotionally wrought game here.
As politically bleak as it is stylistically rigorous, Hellhole is, like Code Unknown, a film about how big cities squish us together without ever considering the consequences. Devos’ film follows three socially disparate but emotionally linked characters as they go about their lonely, modern lives in Brussels. Rohrwacher plays Alba, the most interesting of them, a translator at the European parliament with an unfulfilled sex life, hypochondria and a tendency to fall asleep on the job. Staying awake is certainly a concern here.
Working for the second time with the great Belgian cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Devos continues his aesthetic of languid detachment, surveying scenes from afar like a voyeur, or like a Gus Van Sant movie. In one bravado moment he has the camera slowly loop around a character’s house as he smokes a cigarette in the garden having just received some bad news. We scan each window but find nothing amiss, however the sinking feeling is uncanny.
Hellhole, as the title suggests, is all about that implacable sinking feeling. The character is a doctor named Wannes (Will Thomas) whose son has just left home to fly bombers over Syria. The third character is a young Arab named Mehdi (Hamza Belarbi) who suffers from ADHD and must face a moral dilemma when his older brother asks him to rob from his employer. Devos’s film probes each characters’ ethics and asks if it’s even worth upholding them in an increasingly unethical society. The suggestion that Alba’s narcolepsy – which occurs during European parliament sessions – echoes the public’s ambivalence toward government is a callous idea but undeniably potent.
That looping drone shot provides Hellhole with an artistic centerpiece and Devos and Karakatsanis will offer another for their film’s grimly meditative finale. It is, however, the images of hauntingly empty street corners – shot at close range with the camera slowly moving around them in a 45-degree angle – that stick most in the memory. Hellhole is at its best in these moments, suggesting there exists a sense of fear at what might lie around our cities’ street corners while evoking the memories of recent traumas that still haunt them.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc