Friday, December 12, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Waste Land

Géant is the Col. Kurtz of Belgian art dealers. He has definitely embraced the heart of darkness in the Congo. He even has his personal “witch doctor.” It is not clear that he really believes, if the cop pursuing him believes he believes, or even whether the cop starts to believe himself. Regardless, Det. Leo Woeste is in for a rough final investigation in Pieter Van Hees’s Waste Land (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

Woeste is your basic cop on the edge. He tries to me a good husband and a responsible father to the step-son he has helped raise since infancy, but he has seen some terrible things. The fact that his new partner, Johnny Rimbaud, is a coke-fueled hedonist hardly stabilizes his erratic mood swings. When his wife Kathleen announces her pregnancy, but doubts the wisdom of keeping the baby, Woeste promises to retire from the force and start acting normal. Unfortunately, he has one last case to solve.

When an African immigrant is murdered and dumped in a garbage bag, the initial clues point towards Géant. Woeste tries to be extra-supportive to the slain man’s grieving sister, Aysha Tshimanga, perhaps because his fatherly instincts have been stimulated. However, their relationship soon takes on weird sexual overtones. She will accompany him to various underground boxing matches and hipster night clubs, where the throbbing hot house atmosphere will keep his head spinning.

Waste Land flirts with a lot of genres, but it never fully commits to any. It also injects some clumsy commentary on imperialism, particularly a running non-joke supposedly claiming Woeste is descended from Leopold II. Nevertheless, much of the second act investigation is rather compelling procedural stuff. Unfortunately, the climax is so self-consciously feverish, it undermines the gritty mystery and ambiguous genre elements that proceeded it.

Still, there is no denying Dardenne Brothers regular Jérémie Renier puts on a clinic as Woeste. This is fierce, no-holds-barred, rub-your-nose-in-the-self-destruction work, but it is never self-indulgent. In fact, he balances the inward burn with the outward rage quite adroitly. Babetida Sadjo also finds a spark in Tshimanga that elevates her beyond a mere victim, while Peter Van den Begin gorges on scenery as the roguish Rimbaud.

Despite its narrative frustrations, Waste Land is a massively stylish film. Cinematographer Menno Mans makes Brussels look like a real life Sin City, where most of the buildings are either abandoned warehouses or underground dance clubs. The opening sequence is especially evocative, in a disconcerting way. Nicely played and skillfully put together, Waste Land just lurches out of control down the stretch. Recommended for those who will admire its ambition, Waste Land screens this coming Tuesday (12/16) and Wednesday (12/17), as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.