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Netflix’s new trend of picking up acclaimed TV and film from around the world has been its source for some of the past year’s most fresh and engaging content. From the gripping German historical drama “Babylon Berlin,” to the thrilling Spanish heist show “La casa de papel,” international TV is finally starting to grow in prominence in a genre that has long been dominated by American studios and producers. “Tabula Rasa,” a Belgian psychological thriller, is a worthy addition to this collection.
“Tabula Rasa”’s first episode, “Spectre,” previews the slow-burning nature of the show. Shots move at a languid pace along the gray, dreary environments they depict, including the psychiatric ward in which a young woman named Annemie D’Haeze (Veerle Baetens, “News from Planet Mars”) finds herself. Suffering from short-term amnesia after a car accident, she discovers that she is the prime witness in the disappearance of a man named Thomas de Geest (Jeroen Perceval, “The Ardennes”).
Unfortunately for her and the detectives pursuing the case, while flashbacks do show that the pair indeed met in a seemingly uneventful manner, Mie cannot remember a thing about de Geest, nor certain aspects of her life around the time of her accident. Much of her time in the ward is piecing together details of this time period.
The viewer is always alongside Mie as she tries to remember her past, but is also made aware that the narrator is inherently unreliable. A doctor notes that increased amounts of stress make Mie susceptible to even more “deletion” of memories as her brain goes into overdrive trying to fill them in. The superb cinematography delicately balances this line, showing us some oddly disturbing supernatural imagery — such as a mysterious red powder seeping through the walls — but also occasionally reminding us that what we’re seeing is not necessarily accurate.
Baetens, a mainstay in Belgian cinema and TV, acts in a subtle, restrained manner that perfectly encapsulates her character’s story. Mie is clearly rattled and frightened in the psychiatric ward, yet stubbornly determined to remember who she truly is. She is, however, the only actor who stands out, although little focus has been placed on any of the other characters.
The show truly excels at merging her psychological journey with horror and supernatural elements. Despite being marketed primarily as a supernatural/psychological thriller, à la “Memento” or “The OA,” the horror elements in “Tabula Rasa” are more effective than a large majority of horror films out there. Sure, some scenes rely on common tropes (ghastly strings, conversations that ominously foreshadow future events), but the combination of Baeten’s acting and the cinematography is executed marvelously to create some truly unnerving scenes, exacerbated by the uncertainty that Mie and the audience face.
“Tabula Rasa” is slow and methodical, with the ability to draw you in through its dark, chilling atmosphere and the sheer amount of new questions it raises at every turn. None of it is wholly original in terms of characterization, storyline or production, but for fans of any kind of dark mystery thrillers, its meticulous execution makes it a must-watch.