TIFF Review: 'Waste Land'

Waste Land
(Belgium, 97 min.)
Written and directed by Pieter Van Hees
Starring: Jérémie Renier, Natali Broods, Babetida Sadjo, Peter van den Begin, Mourade Zeguendi
Programme: Vanguard (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
How long does it take a pregnancy to reveal itself? Months? Weeks? It all depends on the person, really, since even a casual gardener knows that seeds all grow at different rates. What happens, though, when said seed sprouts like a weed? We’re not talking about children anyone, but rather the kind of thing that grows like wildfire, uncontained and pervasive, and kills anything around it.

Take the long-gestating darkness that lies within the mind of Belgian homicide detective Leo Woeste (Jérémie Renier, Summer Hours). Leo is in the midst of investigating the grisly murder of a young Congolese-Belgian man when something overtakes him like an all-consuming plague. What exactly this paralysis is, though, is one of the many great mysteries of writer/director Pieter Van Hees’s enigmatic noir Waste Land.

Van Hees throws the viewer blind into the maelstrom of Leo’s madness. A title card opens the film with the simple words “Week 5” after an eerie montage depicts sleepy Belgians snoozing in various public places. Is there a plague? Has it only taken a month to ravage the city? What sort of epidemic is Leo in?

The time, it turns out, refers to the duration of the pregnancy of Leo’s wife, Kathleen (Natali Broods). She’s five weeks along with a surprise baby-in-progress. She wants to terminate it, but Leo, who strikes an impression as a sunny optimist despite his gloomy profession, urges Kathleen to keep the baby. “You know how you can be, Leo,” she replies when Leo wants raise a baby.

Leo’s investigation grows with the weeks of Kathleen’s pregnancy. While a foetus might give its mother some peculiar urges for things like pickles and ice cream, Leo’s case creates even greater swings. The investigation pulls Leo into Belgium’s underworld as the case introduces him to a smuggling ring for African artefacts and a subculture of cult practices for the pleasure of a wealthy Belgian businessman. Leo promises to make this his last case to smooth out his moodiness and make himself better father material, but the intoxicating dark side of the case pulls him into a tailspin.

The responsibility of bringing a child into a world of such omnipresent violence and ugliness seems to be an awful weight on Leo. He falls under a spell of self-abuse and alienation, distances himself from his family, and takes up with the attractive sister of the murder victim (Babetida Sadjo). Each step deeper into the underworld brings Leo closer to the realization (or fantasy) that he’s bringing another stormy player into this dark world. Leo, in the face of such unimaginable uncertainty, must confront the fear that bringing another version of himself will best serve both society and the child itself.

Renier is unsettling as Leo. He throws himself into the underbelly of Waste Land, offering a performance that subtly fractures itself as Leo loses his grip on rationality and becomes indecipherable from the hoods he ferrets out. There’s an animalism to the performance, which Waste Land complements and contrasts with Sadjo’s sphinx-like turn and Broods’ sympathetic voice of reason. Van Meeks and DP Menno Mans also find the salient juxtapositions of Waste Land’s splintered world. Sumptuous cinematography cloaks the film in the permeating darkness of Leo’s psychology with a palette that lets the few radiant colours of the film pop out, flamboyantly and artificially like the palette of a Nicholas Winding Refn film, while the camerawork adds an uneasy air of disorientation.

Waste Land enigmatically unravels Leo’s psyche in chapter formats that correspond the growth of the baby. Rather than mark time in a purely straightforward manner, though, Van Hees lets weeks go by before he signals another shift. The intriguing structure leaves considerable dark patches in Leo’s life, which itself becomes increasingly devoid of structure. The resulting gaps make Waste Land hypnotic, like a nightmare from which you cannot wake up.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Waste Land screens:
-Saturday, Sept. 6 at 9:30 pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
-Monday, Sept. 8 at 4:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
-Saturday, Sept. 13 at 6:30 pm at Scotiabank 13

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information in this year’s festival.