Review: Belgica (Sundance 2016)
PLOT: Two Flemish brothers open a bar in Belgium which quickly becomes a hot-spot for the most-cutting edge local acts. As their popularity grows, the two brothers are torn apart by the realities of their fast-paced, hard-edged lifestyle.
REVIEW: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen Felix van Groeningen’s THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, despite the unanimous raves it got from critics. That’s definitely something I’ll have to remedy as based on his latest film, van Groeningen’s one of the more interesting young European directors out there. While the temptations of nightlife are nothing new to the big screen, BELGICA, while not breaking any new ground, is a furiously entertaining romp through Belgium’s nightlife. It’s full of great acting, great music and much depravity. What’s not to love?
While not in the same genre, van Groeningen’s movie reminded me a bit of the great – largely unseen – THE DION BROTHERS. A seventies crime flick about two crook brothers, BELGICA seems to have borrowed one scene entirely – when one brother fools around with another by threatening him with a lobster from a fish tank at a restaurant. The other similarity is that despite the setting, it’s a surprisingly tender story of brotherly love, with van Groeningen’s two leads, Stef Aerts and Tom Vermeir having superb chemistry.
Aerts plays the gentle younger brother, who’s often made fun of for only having one-eye but despite his unassuming nature, is a born club-owner. Vermeir plays his hulking, ultra-protective older brother, who neglects his wife and kids to embark on this adventure with his beloved brother, ultimately to the detriment of them both. What’s really intriguing is how well van Groeningen depicts the difficulties of club-owning, with all the bribes involved, the staff who wants to be paid under-the-table, the easy access to party girls and groupies, the trouble-making drunks and – most fatal – the drugs.
Along with Aerts and Vermeir, cocaine has a starring role here; with this the most prominent I’ve seen it in a movie since THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. It’s shown how coke is simply a reality of that world, first to help energize the staff working crazy hours, but then spiraling out-of-control to the point that bartenders are doing rails in the middle of the day in plain view of the customers. While drugs are presented as the instrument that facilitates their downfall, this isn’t a morality tale, with overdoses and trips to rehab being non-existent. It’s actually a pretty realistic depiction of the drug, which is shown as something that’s a whole lot of fun – until suddenly it’s really not. At the same time, not everyone who does a line or a bump winds up a junkie, so in that regard this is fairly balanced.
Visually, BELGICA is a stunner, with the lensing by Ruben Impens both realistically gritty when depicted the seamier side of night-clubbing, while also quite beautiful in some of the more stylized scenes, such as the gorgeous closing montage. The music is also terrific, with a propulsive score by Flemish alt-rock band Soulwax and loads of great dance tracks from that part of the world.
While BELGICA doesn’t really offer anything you haven’t seen before in movies like 54 and 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE it’s all done with such style that it feels fresh and new. Truly, van Groeningen is an emerging talent in the same way his countryman Michaël R. Roskam (BULLHEAD) is. He’s one to watch, and BELGICA is an accessible, entertaining party epic that deserves a wide audience.