Belgica Has Us Dancing In Our Seats, Until It Doesn’t
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Director Felix van Groeningen is no stranger to films about people whose closeness becomes a liability when conflict begins to drive them apart. His 2012 film, the Academy Award-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown, focused on a married couple who found their pure and tangible love for each other unable to withstand the pressure of a sick child. His latest complicates things further by making his protagonists bonded by blood not choice.
Jo (Stef Aerts) has faced his share of troubles including a right eye that he hasn’t been able to open since a childhood illness damaged it beyond repair, but he’s found a comfortable routine running a small, nondescript club called Cafe Belgica. His older brother, Frank (Tom Vermeir), is married with a young son, but his fear of complacency and growing stale in middle age leads him to suggest a partnership with Jo and ultimately, an expansion of the Belgica. Frank’s wife is none too pleased, but it’s not long before the brothers are operating one of the city’s most popular bars known for rousing music, rowdy clientele, and an increasingly lax policy on sex in the workplace. Where Jo takes their success with a modicum of responsibility, Frank takes it with a snort or two of cocaine. His drug-taking increases, he begins flagrantly cheating on his wife, and his actions grow increasingly violent and dangerous for those around him.
There are two stories here. The first involves the brothers joining forces on the bar and riding its success to great heights, and the second focuses heavily on Frank’s destructive lifestyle and the damage it’s doing to the bar and to those he ostensibly cares about. Van Groeningen finds far greater success with the first part.
The first half is an incredible experience as the screen comes alive with intense energy and melody – we feel as if we’re among the revelers, their exultation and vitality as palpable on our tongues as their cigarette smoke and sweat – and that distilled elation exits our own bodies through extremities keeping beat with the film. We’re immersed in the experience as the camera moves us rhythmically through the crowd, and it’s a hypnotically appealing stroll. Belgian band Soulwax provides much of the music, but the various musical interludes feel unique thanks to a mix of sounds and instruments ranging from electronica to a saxophone to a three-man drum set. This is a soundtrack I’m already excited to play loudly and repeatedly at home.
The dynamic between the brothers is made clear throughout this section of the film, but while neither character is a revelation their dramas and joys carry weight through their interactions with each other, their friends, lovers, and acquaintances. By the time Frank’s peak has turned into a fall though the energy begins to drain rapidly from the narrative experience. There are far fewer music segments, and that fall feels like it takes a lifetime. We’ve seen this story and character before, and the film adds nothing new to it aside from extended duration. He screws around, he fucks up, he screws around, he fucks up. The film flat-lines with his behavior, and a separate subplot involving Jo’s love life is left floundering as it rushes through the motions.
Even as the characters falter though, both Aerts and Vermeir deliver emotional and engaging performances. Vermeir has the far flashier role as he dives headfirst into violence, excess, and sex with abandon, but Aerts has the more difficult one. Last seen on these shores as the prick counselor in the terrific and rough import Cub, he delivers a far more gentle character here. He has anger within him though, and Jo’s early promise that he can forgive anyone is faced with a real challenge in his brother’s behavior resulting in pained, exasperated outbursts.
Belgica isn’t nearly as dramatic or intimately compelling as The Broken Circle Breakdown, but van Groeningen once again displays a sure hand at weaving powerful displays of music into film. Sadly though, it just doesn’t last. We’re not challenged by these characters’ dilemma – we’re frustrated and bored by it. And that’s a difficult tune to dance to.
Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.
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