Sundance Film Review: ‘Belgica’

The Oscar-nominated director of 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' returns with another music-fueled relationship story, this one focused on two brothers who open an epic rock club.

Belgica Day One Film Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Blending raw emotion with a rowdy musical sensibility, “Belgica” doubles down on the qualities that made director Felix van Groeningen’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown” such an international sensation, but loses the hook, resulting in a louder, rock-drenched melodrama lacking much of the earlier film’s gut-punch potential. Loosely inspired by memories of his dad’s Ghent-based cafe-cum-disco, the Charlatan, van Groeningen’s fifth feature celebrates the anarchic spirit and foolhardy entrepreneurialism it takes to open a successful nightclub, until personal differences, drugs and assorted other playing-with-fire cliches spoil the fun. The film’s anarchic energy makes it a fine choice to kick off Sundance’s World Cinema competition, where more people are likely to embrace the film than during its inevitably limited domestic run.

Opening with a disclaimer that merely reinforces audience suspicions that the purportedly “fictitious” film is a thinly veiled account of actual events, “Belgica” takes its name from the crappy bar where nearly the entire story takes place. You can practically smell the Belgian beer and backed-up lavatories in the early scenes (a testament to art director Kurt Rigolle), although over the course of more than two hours, the dive undergoes a dramatic transformation, as do the two brothers who conspire to make it the country’s coolest concert venue.

The idea originates with Jo Cannoott (Stef Aerts), a soft-spoken dreamer with delicate features, mussy blond hair and a drooping eyelid (the result of a childhood infection), all of which combine to give him a thoroughly nonthreatening sensibility — adorable, yes, but hardly the sort of Alpha-male persona one imagines running a bar full of chandelier-swinging drunkards. Maybe that’s why his older and clearly dominant brother, Frank (Tom Vermeir), volunteers to help out, despite the fact that the two haven’t stayed on the closest terms.

At first, Frank shamelessly pitches in with the most thankless tasks (unclogging the tampon-blocked toilets, for example), though in no time he has commandeered Jo’s passion project as his own, asserting plans to buy the empty building next door and expand the Belgica — building codes and security concerns be damned. With one young child at home and another on the way, his wife is understandably skeptical, but after breaking a few plates in protest, she quickly caves in to Frank’s scheme.

He’s a hard man to resist, which is as much a testament to the character as written as to his casting: A rock singer-guitarist for the Belgian band A Brand with only one other IMDb feature credit to his name, Vermeir is a naturally charismatic performer with the capacity for nuance, a bit like “Malcolm in the Middle”-era Bryan Cranston in appearance, with that actor’s ability to find layers of “Breaking Bad”-style complexity beyond that charming first impression. Clearly dissatisfied with the idea of settling into domestic complacency, Frank creates the sort of hedonistic environment where his kid brother — making his own first steps toward relationship-building — stands no chance of succeeding.

While clearly not as enticing as the family bond at the center of “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “Belgica’s” sibling dynamic seeks to find the mythic in what might otherwise be a gossipy smear job. To that end, van Groeningen conceives the Cannoott brothers as a Romulus-and-Remus-like duo who succeed in building an empire together, only to have it corrupt them in all the ways exhausted by countless other cautionary showbiz stories. Big-picture cliches aside, this truth-blurring but thoroughly convincing portrait makes its case via the details: Where else have you seen rock bottom depicted as wearing a condom over one’s head while back-and-forthing half-chewed hot dogs with an oversexed stranger?

Such unforgettable specifics — which range from Jo’s half-shut right eye to an opening-night run-in with sketchy cops — bring this crazy milieu to life, while the restless handheld camerawork and giddy jump-cut style give things the renegade twist van Groeningen is looking for. Clearly, the film aspires to being as punk-rock as the edgiest bands to play the Belgica, although it’s a bit too predictable to pull it off. There’s not nearly enough conflict facing the club’s ascendance, which can only mean one thing: The obstacles are all being saved for the back half, starting with the announcement that Jo’s g.f. (Helene Devos) is pregnant, which signals a wake-up call to responsibility as the brothers’ reckless behavior brings what they’ve built crashing down upon their own heads.

In past features, van Groeningen employed sophisticated cutting and inventive nonlinear tricks to avoid the overly simplistic rise-and-fall structure that emerges here. This time, he embraces a purely straightforward chronology, albeit one that doesn’t always connect the dots. In one scene the brothers might be snorting coke with the Shitz lead singer Davy Coppens (Boris Van Severen), only to be called to a funeral (but whose?) the next. This may be a boys’ story, but the director’s sympathy clearly extends to their maligned female lovers, and as the darkness encroaches and tragedy mounts, it actually seems to take their side.

Life is a dizzying tilt-a-whirl, powered by the dynamically wide-ranging music of a group called Soulwax, who’ve created not only the epic vibe that powers the film itself, but also the individual sounds of the many made-up acts who give the Belgica its legendary status. Whether outsiders demonstrate any interest in the ups and downs of an obscure Flemish rock club remains to be seen, though at least the music makes a case for why they should care.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Belgica’

Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, Los Angeles, Jan. 14, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — World Cinema, competing.) Running time: <strong>127 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Belgium-France-Netherlands) A Menuet, Pyramide Prods., Topkapi Films production, in co-production with France 3 Cinema, with the support of the Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (VAF), Screen Flanders & Agentschap Ondernemen, Nederlands Filmfonds, CNC, Institut Francais, Eurimages, Tax Shelter Maatregel van de Belgische Federale Overheid, Casa Kafka Pictures, with the participation of Kinepolis Film Distribution, Lumiere Publishing, Proximus, Medialaan, France Televisions, Canal Plus, Cine Plus. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Dirk Impens. Co-producers, Francis Boespflug, Stephane Parthenay, Frans van Gestel, Arnold Heslenfeld, Laurette Schillings.
  • Crew: Directed by Felix van Groeningen. Screenplay, Arne Sierens, van Groeningen. Camera (color, widescreen), Ruben Impens; editor, Nico Leunen; music, Soulwax; art director, Kurt Rigolle; costume designer, Ann Lauwerys; sound, Jan Deca; sound designer, Michel Schoepping; line producer, Johan van den Driessche; associate producers, Hans Everaert, Alberte Gautot, Rudy Verzyck.
  • With: Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir, Helene Devos, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Boris Van Severen, Sara De Bosschere, Dominique Van Malder, Sam Louwyck, Stefaan De Winter, Silvanus Saow. (Flemish, French dialogue)