Pulsar -- Film Review

Technology runs amuck, and the film follows suit.

Anyone who has struggled with a recalcitrant, uncooperative computer will empathize with the crisis faced by Samuel, the protagonist of the Belgian film, "Pulsar," which recently played at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles. Samuel (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works as a deliveryman for a Brussels pharmacy, communicates with his girlfriend, Mireille (Tine van den Wyngaert), by e-mail, Skype, and cell phone while she is pursuing an architectural internship in New York. The long-distance relationship between the lovebirds is humming along until someone begins hacking into Samuel’s computer. He keeps losing his Internet connection, and then a mysterious stranger begins sending negative messages to Mireille in Samuel’s name.

While the movie might have been a nifty contemporary thriller, Pulsar turns out to be frustratingly enervated and oblique. Writer-director Alex Stockman seems unable to decide whether he wants to generate suspense or psychological insights into a man surrendering to paranoia. As a result of this blurred focus, commercial prospects outside Belgium seem decidedly dim.

There are moments of sly humor as Stockman sets up the premise of a man dependent on modern technology in his self-contained apartment. Schoenaerts makes an inherently likable protagonist with just the right hint of incipient craziness. But the director fails to tighten the screws effectively. He relies too heavily on an overbearing musical score to supply tension missing from the script.  If there is an outside presence menacing Samuel, the director neglects to identify a potential antagonist. And if the point is that the growing disintegration is of Samuel’s own making, then we need to understand where the seeds of his madness might lie. But the deeper roots of his character are frustratingly unexplored.

The film is a virtual one-man show. While van den Wyngaert seems a convincing object of Samuel’s desire, she appears only in snippets. Samuel’s neighbors, friends and professional colleagues could be the source of his problems, but they aren’t well-developed characters. And the claustrophobic setting leads to tedium rather than mounting suspense.

As Samuel becomes more and more crazed in trying to prevent a mysterious hacker from penetrating his world, the film starts to recall Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Conversation, but without the same intensity in acting or direction.

One of Samuel’s neighbors whom he consults for computer advice demurs and tells him succinctly, “The worst three inventions of the last century are the atomic bomb, the cell phone and the computer.”  That’s a thesis eminently worth exploring, but this lackluster film fails to do justice to the provocative central concept. 

Production company: Corridor Films
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Tine van den Wyngaert, Nico Sturm, Sien Eggers, Vincent Lecuyer
Director-screenwriter: Alex Stockman
Producers: Kaat Camerlynck, Alex Stockman
Director of photography: Sebastien Koeppel
Production designer: Jeff Otte
Music: Guy Van Nueten
Editor: Nico Leunen
No rating, 90 minutes

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