LFF 2018: Étangs Noirs Review
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Quiet and unassuming in its execution, Étangs Noirs (2018) is at times almost a documentary-like film, the camera taking in the simple yet protracted journey of one man travelling around Brussels. This man is Jimi (Cédric Luvuezo), who has tasked himself with trying to return a package after it has been mistakenly delivered to his address. However finding the woman who owns it is easier said than done, his quest made more complicated by unhelpful neighbours, thieves, mistaken identities, and all other sorts of obstacles. And soon, his helpful errand has turned into full blown obsession, Jimi becoming increasingly determined to return the parcel, even if he has to dig deeper into this woman’s life to find her.
The title of the film refers to a metro station in Brussels – a mode of transport that features heavily throughout. Travelling back and forth along the metro, Jimi tries to establish where he might find the woman who owns the package, sometimes even guessing which of the passengers might be her. Waiting around at various stations, and occasionally outside her flat, we often question if we would do the same, Jimi proving himself to be a kind young man, but one who might be taking things a little too far. It’s an uncomplicated yet thought-provoking premise, and one which writer-director’s Timeau De Keyser and Pieter Dumoulin ably bring to the screen with their non-intrusive direction. However as they unravel their tale, it becomes clear that Étangs is less about Jimi’s journey and how it will end, and more about the everyday life he encounters on the way, as well as the human connections that he makes (or lack thereof). In one telling moment early on, a neighbour (Rudy Mira) he visits talks in detail about the budgies he keeps, declaring them to be “Like human beings: everyone has their own character and behaviour”. We might not yet know it, and neither does Jimi, but this is what he comes to find throughout the course of the film – the good, the bad, and the ugly of people, De Keyser and Dumoulin often hinting at a breakdown of community in which these connections are now rare.
In this way, De Keyser and Dumoulin’s film seems very much like the work of the Dardenne brothers, the writer-directors here similarly revelling in the slices of life that they bring to the narrative, the documentary-style camerawork infusing this with a wonderful sense of realism. This comes to fruition during the extended scenes on the metro; long takes that feature what we assume to be real passengers reacting to the camera. And yet amongst all this, there is something about Étangs that frustratingly keeps us at arm’s length, its broad themes never fully explored and its lack of character development meaning we never truly get to know Jimi, or what is motivating his journey. Although De Keyser and Dumoulin intriguingly leave certain story points up to our own interpretation, as well as the overall meaning behind the film, its glacial pace and lack of plot overshadow this, leaving us with little interest when Étangs finishes, and actually making its short running time feel a lot longer than it is. Although those quiet observations of everyday life impress, it is no compensation when the rest of it falls flat, Étangs ending up a disappointing filmic experiment that widely misses its mark.
While there is no obvious threat in the film, there is still a tension felt throughout that keeps us curious, particularly when Jimi turns to more irresponsible methods to find the woman he is looking for. Cédric Luvuezo’s quiet and understated performance also ensures we want to see where he ends up, the long shots of his expression-filled face almost making it seem as if we can hear his internal monologue as he ponders what to do next. However none of this can make up for a film that is so forgettable and evasive that it feels like it wants us to stop watching, and whose final destination leaves us wholly unsatisfied. It is rather telling that one of the standout scenes doesn’t take place in the narrative itself, but rather in a dream, Jimi suddenly fraught with how he’ll ever find the real owner of the package. Yet Étangs has already lost us so much by this point that we really don’t care.