Luka: an airless, hermetic slice of black-and-white Europudding

Unapologetically filtering Beau Travail through early Luc Besson and bande dessinée futurism, Jessica Woodworth’s debut feature as a solo director feels too narcotised to really transport us anywhere.

2 February 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Jonas Smulders as Luka in Luka (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 International Film Festival Rotterdam

Jessica Woodworth’s Luka is what you might call a bell-jar film. It creates a self-enclosed fictional world bearing little relation either to a known reality or to any visible outside universe. Such worlds are difficult to create convincingly, and even when achieved, there’s often a drawback: it’s in the nature of bell jars that the air inside is unbreathably rarefied.

Belgian-American director Woodworth made her mark with several features co-directed with Peter Brosens, including Khadak (2006) and Altiplano (2009). She now goes solo on a film inspired by Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe, previously filmed in 1976 by Valerio Zurlini. The flavour of Buzzati’s imagination, which has affinities with Kafka and Borges, infuses a drama that visually recalls the proto-steampunk style of Luc Besson’s 1983 debut The Last Battle and the visionary futurism of French bande dessinée artists Enki Bilal and Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius).

These echoes show both in the locations and in the casting, with actors becoming human statuary – as witness the emaciated Jan Bijvoet as an ancient officer, and Jonas Smulders as raw recruit Luka. Smulders’s intense gaze and blonde hair recall Terence Stamp as the doomed hero of Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (1962) – not inappropriately, given the homoerotic camaraderie among the young soldiers.

Strikingly shot by Virginie Surdej (The Blue Caftan, 2022), this black-and-white drama makes the most of Sicilian and Bulgarian locations (alien desertscapes, monumental eastern European architecture) to construct an isolated non-place of uncertain geography. The setting is the fortress stronghold of an army from an unnamed country, whose purpose is to hold off incursions from an unseen enemy. With its cavernous Piranesi-esque interiors and corridors like vast storm drains, the fort is manned by a troop of young male soldiers commanded by a cadre of desiccated superiors, Bijvoet’s skeletal, billygoat-bearded martinet among them. Belgian stalwart Sam Louwyck, hair a-bristle, plays a wild-eyed officer who leads his bare-chested men in sweat-lodge-like training rituals that unapologetically recall Beau Travail (1999). At the head of it all is Geraldine Chaplin as the commanding general, at once imposing, fragile and as downright weird as ever, her complexion so sun-leathered that her character seems embalmed by eternity.

Otherworldly as it is, Luka feels too narcotised to really transport us. The sound, and the stilted English dialogue, severely dilute the visual richness: an antique flavour of Europudding in the mix of accents; sometimes impassive, sometimes overstated acting that loses its energy in the sound mix, voices hanging dead as if in a vacuum. Indeed, for all its strangeness and beauty, airless is how Luka ultimately feels.