AFI FEST 2010 Review: PULSAR

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
November 7th, 2010

Rating: 3/5

Writer: Alex Stockman
Director: Alex Stockman
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Tine Van den Wyngaert, Sien Eggers, Vincent Lecuyer

In Belgian slow burn thriller PULSAR, writer and director Alex Stockman distills down the greater impact of technology to its detrimental effects on just one man, forcing us to ask where the line between basic annoyance and the malicious is drawn – and who draws it.

Samuel (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a simple guy. He has a ho-hum job as a pharmaceutical deliveryman, a nice apartment in Brussels, some nosy neighbors, a couple of close pals, and a girlfriend who has decamped to New York City for a temporary position at a highbrow architecture firm. It’s the absence of the lovely Mireille that sets Samuel’s life on a course that seems mostly unfamiliar to him – conflict and distance and confusion don’t seem to fit into the way Samuel has done things before, and that’s why he finds comfort in some of the things we take for granted – technology. Samuel and Mireille attempt to stay close via all sorts of everyday gadgets – cell phones, Skype, email – but it’s as the two try to keep their most personal interactions still, well, personal, that the cold mechanics of radio waves and wi-fi signals start to derail their once-stable relationship.

It starts simply enough – Samuel’s computer tells him an unknown user is logged in to his network. What could just be a small bother spirals out of control, as the intrusion leads to disconnects between Samuel and Mireille – both purely technological and deeply personal. It’s this threat on the dearest part of his life that leads Samuel to pursue any and all solutions to the problem, starting with unconcerned IT professionals, and progressing steadily into full-blown paranoid behaviors.

As Samuel, Schoenaerts is given a delicate role to play. The vast majority of PULSAR leaves us alone with Samuel, confined to his daily routine of solitary work and waiting around his apartment to speak to Mireille. PULSAR is not heavy on the dialogue, so we must get to know Samuel in other ways, and Schoenaerts is up to the task. An engaging everyman lead, it’s a credit to his fine work in the film that it takes so long for the audience to begin to question his reliability as the narrator of the maddening turn his life has taken. Before we think to question just how trustworthy Samuel is, we’ve been dragged into what now looks so much like mental illness. But is it the curable sort? Is Samuel temporarily unhinged by the wild, wooly insanity of love, complicated by a potentially malevolent force infringing on his life, or are we the victims in this game, trapped in a web as tangled as it is bizarre?

PULSAR attempts to speak to the nature of some huge, modern questions in a compact story, but its overly tight focus bogs it down. Though the film is only around ninety minutes long, it never harnesses enough tension to keep it steadily clipping along. The film is certainly elevated by how engaging Schoenaerts’ Samuel is, and how easy it is to get pulled into what becomes, on many levels, a personal quest for him. But PULSAR works at dial-up speed, when so much of it would benefit from a kick up to something a bit more broadband.

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