Film Review: ‘Belgian Rhapsody’

This exuberant musical comedy provides charming retro entertainment.

Amaryllis Uitterlinden, Arthur Dupont, Jos Verbist, Tom Audenaert, David Cantens, Michel Van Dousselaere, Liesa Naert, Rilke Eyckermans, Koen Van Impe, Marc Peeters, Kasper Vandenberghe, Marc Weiss, Erika Sainte, Philippe Resimont, Frederik L. Haugness, Claudine Pelletier, Joel Delsaut, Fabrice Boutique, Ivan Pecnik. (Dutch, French, English dialogue)

Exuberant musical comedy “Belgian Rhapsody” from helmer Vincent Bal (“Miss Minoes, “The Zigzag Kid”) uses the fierce rivalry between two Belgian brass bands — the Flemish St. Cecilia and the Walloon (French-speaking) En Avant — as they vie for a European championship to send up the intractable competition between Belgium’s two language groups in almost every walk of life. Fests will be rhapsodic over the cheerfully retro pic’s rousing music, good-looking thesps and infectious spirit; sales are already closed in France, Japan, South Korea and Turkey, with other territories under discussion.

As the action kicks off, the Walloons blow into the finals thanks to Hugues (Arthur Dupont), their exceptionally talented and handsome trumpet player. But St. Cecilia’s soloist Willy (Ivan Pecnik) literally gives his all during the semi-final and drops dead on stage after playing his final notes.

As the members of St. Cecilia mourn their bandmate — and their chances — crafty Elke (Amaryllis Uitterlinden, a stage thesp and solo artist making an impressive big screen debut), daughter of the band’s conductor Jozef (Jos Verbist), proposes a solution: Let’s poach that Walloon super talent. Luckily for St. Cecilia, egotistical Hugues is ripe for their offer, which is amusingly blurted out by timid Andries (the always welcome Tom Audenaert) during a field trip to En Avant’s hometown. It’s not just the money; Hugues has a bone to pick with his brother Michel (Marc Weiss), the En Avant leader, who refuses to let the group play Hugues’ original composition during the championship.

Elke assumes the task of minder for moody babe magnet Hugues, but discovers that music sometimes brings people together a bit too much. As her relationship with Hugues heats up, accompanied by some lovely romantic duets, she begins to doubt her future with fiance Renaat (David Cantens), son of the richest man in town. And Hugues discovers the perils of crossing his own flesh and blood.

Bal and screenwriter Pierre De Clercq (“Hasta la vista!”) successfully channel the beating heart of classic Hollywood musical romances, even as the narrative remains 100% Belgian with a hilariously apt storyline for the country that invented the saxophone and is nicknamed “the battleground of Europe.” The satire, of course, is equal opportunity, skewering the habits of both Flemish and Walloons. While offshore audiences might not understand all of the cultural references, there’s plenty of other comedy to appreciate. Nevertheless, the soul of the pic is in the songs, including old Flemish standards such as “So beautiful, so blonde and so alone,” which Uitterlinden socks over with great feeling.

Indeed, the performance by pretty leading lady Uitterlinden should put her on the radar of Euro casting directors. (Now that Matthias Schoenaerts is practically ubiquitous, no one should be afraid of pronouncing Flemish names.) The rest of the well-cast ensemble provides spot-on character turns.

Although modest by Hollywood standards, the tech package is altogether pleasing and serves to bring off this entertaining, old-fashioned romp in style. The upbeat final musical number should ensure auds leave the theater with a grin. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Film Review: 'Belgian Rhapsody'

Reviewed at the Montreal World Film Festival (closing night), Sept. 2, 2015. Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: ‘Brabanconne’)  

Production: (Belgium-Luxembourg) An Eyeworks Film & TV Drama production in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup, Samsa Film, VIER, with the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Film Fund Luxembourg, Screen Flanders, Enterprise Flanders & Flanders In Action and the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, le centre du cinema et de l’audiovisuel de le federation Wallonie-Bruxelles, VOO, the Belgian tax shelter for film financing in cooperation with Kinepolis Film Distribution and Telenet. (International sales: Be For Films, Brussels). Produced by Peter Bouckaert. Co-producers, Jani Thiltges, Diana Elbaum, Sebastien Delloye.

Crew: Directed by Vincent Bal. Screenwriter, Pierre De Clercq, from a story by Bal and De Clercq. Camera (color, HD), Danny Elsen; editor, Philippe Ravoet; music, Steve Willaert; production designer, Gert Stas; costume designer, Kristin Van Passel; choreographer, Martin Michel; sound (5.1), Carlo Thoss, Nicolas Tran Trong, Michel Schillings.

With: Amaryllis Uitterlinden, Arthur Dupont, Jos Verbist, Tom Audenaert, David Cantens, Michel Van Dousselaere, Liesa Naert, Rilke Eyckermans, Koen Van Impe, Marc Peeters, Kasper Vandenberghe, Marc Weiss, Erika Sainte, Philippe Resimont, Frederik L. Haugness, Claudine Pelletier, Joel Delsaut, Fabrice Boutique, Ivan Pecnik. (Dutch, French, English dialogue)

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