The name Bouli Lanners will probably mean nothing to most UK filmgoers, unless you pay particular attention to film credits and noticed his part in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement as Corporal Chardolot. In his home country of Belgium, Lanners is better known as a TV comedian, but it is work as a painter of the Belgian landscape that seems to influence the tone and subject matter of Lanners’ debut feature film Ultranova, as well as its whole look and feel.
If you are only familiar with the Belgian landscape and temperament from the films of the Dardenne Brothers, you’ll find that Ultranova will confirm your impression of country as a damp, dank place inhabited by intense characters living out agonising lives in quiet desperation. Like the Dardenne Brothers, Lanners tries to make a connection between the people and their surroundings, and eke out of it something deeper about the human condition. If he doesn’t quite achieve the same level of intensity as his compatriots, or their depth of social commentary, Lanners at least makes a film that is rather more accessible, with realistic characters that are readily identifiable and readable. Dimitri (Vincent Lecuyer) sells houses for a property company “Sweet Homes” – it’s just an ordinary job, but his neighbour Jeanne (Marie du Bled) and her friend Cathy (Hélène de Reymaeker), two girls who work at a furniture packing factory, are intrigued by him and rumours of a mysterious past. One day, on a chance meeting, Cathy reaches out and gets to know Dimitri better.
These are all ordinary people, lonely people, living ordinary lives the best they can, looking for some form of human contact. Scene after scene in the film shows depressed characters in a bleak depersonalised landscape which seems to be slowly draining the life out of them, failing to see the signs that tell them to wake-up and get out. Dimitri’s occupation as a house salesman and the painterly depiction of the Wallonian landscape on the screen by Lanners only serves to emphasise the sense of creeping urbanisation and resultant social alienation that his characters feel. Like the American paintings of Edward Hopper which are clearly an influence on the director, there are however moments of hope for these lonely characters and the promise of encounters, of reaching across the divide and making contact with other people.
This sounds like bleak, heavy stuff, but Bouli Lanners has a lightness of touch and simplicity that makes it all grimly realistic, yet horribly comic at the same time, although it is perhaps a little too obvious and over-schematic in its use of symbolism and metaphor. Most obviously, there is the bookending images of the car airbag that unexpectedly opens and serves as a wake-up call that their lives have taken a wrong road, but the behaviour that defines each of the characters is just as heavily underlined. Dimitri caresses a stocking and drags his hands through grass to show a tactile nature, longing for a sensuous experience. His colleague Verbrugghe (Vincent Belorgey) is meticulous about sticking to the rules and insists on the employees taking driving lessons in compensation for his own life which is spinning out of control. The girls see the lifeline on the palms of their hands and wonder how they can change the direction of lives that are already written. Most blatant is when Cathy’s mother shows Dimitri photographs of Cathy as a girl and explains that she was an orphan. These are all shorthand attempts at giving the characters a little more depth, without delving sufficiently or with enough originality into their personalities.
It’s a pity, because Lanners shows much more strength and ability and speaks much more eloquently of the characters’ condition in his use of music – a superb original score by Jarby McCoy – and in the use of locations and the landscape, the superb cinematography using desaturated colour and grain, darkness and rain to forge a connection between the grim drabness of the locations and the characters’ lives. If the film never quite has the conviction of other rather more harsh depictions of the misery of life, it does at least capture the sense of ordinary lives going nowhere, leaving the characters to just pick themselves up and get on with it.
Ultranova is released in the UK by ICA Projects. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
There’s not really a great deal to say about the quality of the DVD transfer. 2.35:1 non-anamorphic letterbox, fixed subtitles, on a single-layer disc, no scene selection or even chapters, just one menu screen giving you the option to ‘Play’. It could only be an ICA Projects release. The bare, basic minimum of a film on a disc, with no fuss or frills and certainly no extra features. Having said that, the film is perfectly watchable, capturing the desaturated colours and grainy image that the director intended, with scarcely a mark on the print and not a flicker of macroblocking or any other significant digital artefacts. The only thing wrong with this is that it is non-anamorphic, but there isn’t any real loss of quality or resolution when zooming the PAL image.
The audio track is plain Dolby Digital 2.0 and is perfectly adequate for the most part, although it looks to be ever so slightly out of sync in one or two places.
English subtitles are fixed but are entirely within the image frame, meaning that it can be zoomed to widescreen without them being cut off.
There are no extra features on the disc.
I’m sure that the Belgian tourist industry are fed up with the negative image that their filmmakers present of their country, but the circumstances of the characters in Ultranova are very similar to many people regardless of where they live. Like the films of Aki Kauriskami, who must inevitably be invoked whenever such a film is reviewed, there is however humour and optimism that lies behind the grim surface. The title of the film suggests for the director the idea of the supernova of an imploding star, the characters here seeing their lives “ultranova” – destructing, but hopefully being reborn to something different and maybe better. Consequently, Ultranova comes over as a kind of miserabilism-lite, lacking the bite of the more intense films in this style, but it perhaps all the more realistic for its depiction of lives lacking drama, structure, meaning or direction. It achieves this sense of emptiness with strong performances, a superb score and wonderful cinematography that perfectly captures the tone. Just don’t expect much to happen. A corresponding lowering of expectations is also advised in approaching this DVD release from ICA Projects.