The burden of responsibility hangs heavy in Timeau de Keyser and Pieter Dumoulin's metaphorical drama Etangs Noirs, a film formed from a single idee fixe fixated on itself, burrowing ever deeper into itself - a process that turns this remarkable picture into one of the year's finest. A young, solitary resident in a Brussels high-rise attempts to deliver a parcel to a fellow resident, having received it by mistake; his attempts develop into an obsession following a number of vaguely odd incidents along the way, and man and parcel become inextricably intertwined, the intended recipient an end to means that seem to resist ending at all.
Etangs Noirs unfurls its single string of narrative interest with a mysteriousness that at once demands and resists investigation. It's a coy film, supremely enjoyable for those of us so sated with clear, unambiguous storytelling in the medium. De Keyzer and Dumoulin explore other facets of what artistic opportunities the cinema affords, beguiling the viewer with striking colours and compositions, adding enigmatic depth through their edits rather than treating them as functional necessities. And much as their approach may appear to reject the prospect of conventional narrative advancement, every new ambiguity and every existing one compounded further converge into a portrait of an erratic, aimless yet purposeful, dislocated figure of an immigrant in a landscape of immigrants - an alien, perhaps. In Etangs Noirs, the viewer's quest for a definitive meaning may be fruitless, but that too is a facet of cinema, as it is of all art. Meaning is what one - and it's always only one - applies to a story, or an image, or to some other form of art. What meaning each of us may derive from this film is as legitimate as any other, and what a skill de Keyzer and Dumoulin have in eliciting so much potential for it.
Less ambiguous but just as coy is Ali Abbasi's Border, a richly entertaining arthouse genre provocation, like a 21st Century Beauty and the Beast where each are one and the same. Abbasi orchestrates an amusing transposition of Nordic folklore to Nordic noir in a story of two misfits living near a Swedish port, connecting over their similar, peculiar physical deformities while one is recruited to participate in a police investigation involving the sexual abuse of children. As cheerful as that sounds, it's in such spirit that Abbasi mines the various competing absurdities of his conceit for generous amounts of dark comedic value; as its characters exist on the outskirts of society, normality, and an actual land body, so too does Border exist on its own borders, ever cheekily threatening to tip over into a full-blown comedy or the kind of morose dramatic thriller so commonplace in Scandinavia of late. Abbasi's fine balancing trick extends to his treatment of character, employing a sincere compassion for each and all throughout that reframes the film's every development as commentary on the nature of humanity, a loaded term in these waters.
Etangs Noirs and Border both screen at the 2018 London Film Festival next month.