Trust me, Belgium is a lovely country. You just wouldn’t know it from the cinema it exports. They might show an unusual affinity for naturalism, but films like Michaël Roskam’s Bullhead, Felix van Groeningen’s over-hyped Broken Circle Breakdown, the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, and Christophe van Rompaey’s Moscow, Belgium paint a picture of an economically depressed, crime-infested backwater nation. Their official Oscar submission for best foreign language feature will not help their image much, but the withering portrayal of human nature certainly distinguishes Robin Pront’s The Ardennes (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.
Ardennes was produced by Bart Van Langendock,, who also produced Bullhead. He seems to have the Dardennes’ number, since both films were submitted instead of the auteur brothers’ more high profile releases. In the case of Bullhead that worked out okay for Belgium. Maybe this time they inadvertently left off “D” and submitted Ardennes by accident (a film about brothers). Or maybe it was politically expedient to submit a largely Flemish film this year.
Regardless, Dave de Swaef’s brother Kenny is about to get out of jail and nobody is happy about it, least of all his former girlfriend Sylvie de Winter. She and Dave are now together, but neither has told Kenny, because of his psychotic tendencies. Dave does his best to keep his brother on the straight and narrow, but it is a losing effort. The only real question is how far will Dave allow Kenny to drag him down. That will probably be answered when Kenny forces Dave to accompany him on a rather nefarious errand—one that requires the help of Stef, his seriously nutty former cellmate now living in the Ardennes region.
Frankly, The Ardennes really takes its sweet time getting going. The first hour or so plays like the sort of miserablism you could find in van Groeningen’s work. However, the third act veers hard into bile-black genre business. Knowing the de Swaef Brothers is not a safe proposition, but neither is being one. Pront and co-screenwriter Jeroen Perceval throw in the kitchen sink down the stretch, including a homicidal transvestite (Social Justice Warriors be damned), a flock of runaway ostriches, and a nasty punch line.
Most of the cast (particularly Veerle Baetens’ de Winter) seems thoroughly beaten down and hopeless, in a very Belgian way, but not Jan Bijvoet as the bizarrely flamboyant, alarmingly rustic Stef. He is one villain you really do not want to mess with. Peter Van den Begin and Eric Godon add further eccentric flair as the de Graef’s compulsive gambling boss and the forest ranger tracking the fugitive ostriches. As the Brothers de Swaef, Kevin Janssens rages like a tempest and screenwriter Perceval broods like crazy, representing opposite sides of the same dysfunctional coin.
When it finally gets to those wooded foothills, The Ardennes packs a mean punch. It did not make Oscar’s nine-film shortlist, but that is true of much more heavily championed films. It is definitely worth seeing if you can handle its dark Flemish soul. Recommended for fans of gritty crime dramas, The Ardennes opens this Friday (1/6) in New York, at the Village East.