Belgian writer-director Caroline Strubbe is less interested in narrative architecture than she is in collecting behavioral detail. Her debut feature, 2009’s Lost Persons Area (which takes its title from Elliott Erwitt’s 1963 photograph), devotes entire scenes —many of them captured in tender, caress-like close-ups — to minute physical gestures: Bettina (the bouncy and vibrant Lisbeth Gruwez) gently putting lipstick on her daughter, Tessa (Kimke Desart); Tessa feeling her father’s (Sam Louwyck) scratchy beard; Bettina trimming Szabolcs’s (Zoltán Miklós Hajdu) stringy hair.
The family at the center of Lost Persons Area lives on a remote plot of land that has more dirt than it does grass. Pylons tower over their small residence, and a team of construction workers, led by foreman Marcus (Louwyck), is often seen climbing the power lines beneath the glare of the late-afternoon sun. Bettina, Marcus’s lover, runs the canteen that serves Marcus and his crew, and the curious young Tessa regularly ditches school to search the surroundings, collecting rocks, pencils, and bars of soap along the way. The plot materializes with the arrival of the sullen Szabolcs, a Hungarian engineer whom Marcus hires, and the onset of a fateful, on-the-job accident. (Strubbe’s sophomore feature, 2013’s I’m the Same, I’m an Other, is even more plotless than Lost Persons Area. Screening alongside Lost Persons at MoMA this week, it recycles some of the same actors, and is reportedly the second installment in a planned trilogy.)It’s the gestures that elevate the film: What Strubbe’s handheld and intimate approach lacks in originality it makes up for in specific and spontaneous tactility. Her characters’ actions are so distinctive that, by the time Strubbe reaches something resembling an emotional climax — an extended sequence of dancing that brings Marcus’s family together with his crew — the psychological currents of the four main characters have become so precise that each glance carries an overwhelming amount of unspoken meaning.