'Belgica': Sundance Review
The new film from Belgian director Felix van Groeningen ('The Broken Circle Breakdown') is about the rise and fall of a great music club.
The high and lows of the club life as a way of life serve as the nostalgic focal point of Belgica. Director-co-writer Felix van Groeningen's follow-up to his excellent 2012 domestic drama The Broken Circle Breakdown is neither as ambitious nor as satisfying as that best foreign film Oscar nominee, but its fleeting intoxications momentarily provide suggestions—and, for some, memories—of how the highest highs can sometimes make the drudgery of the rest of life worth it. This boisterous music-fueled drama looks to carve a modest career on the domestic specialty circuit.
The story of the Cafe Belgica has been duplicated countless times in real life: A small club with a devoted inner circle catches fire, becomes the hottest place to be for a time, impossible to get into, and then, suddenly, the good times come to an end. Complicating and enriching the tale written by the director with Arne Sierens is the relationship between two brothers, Jo and Frank, who run the place and could scarcely be more different; Jo (Stef Aerts)—slim, artsy, cute enough, his right eye disconcertingly sealed shut—is the responsible one with a business sense whose absolute passion is music, while older Frank (Tom Vermeir)—working-class, macho, married with a kid and another on the way—has a car dealership on a dreary stretch near a highway an hour from the city and seems like a potential dead-ender when Jo throws him a lifeline.
A bar that has the look of having been around forever, the Belgica (based on the real-life Charlatan Bar in Ghent) has a solid crowd of regulars who love the mixed old school/new music vibe, a crowd now growing large enough that expansion seems called for. The enterprising Jo takes over the space next door and invites a surprised Frank to oversee the renovation that will provide the venue with a great new performance/dance space, with the brothers splitting the proceeds 50/50. Success seems assured and, while there are obstacles along the way—town officials initially won't allow more than 80 people into the new hall, and a suspicious character named Mohammed tries to strong-arm them into hiring him and his goons to provide what he insists is necessary security—it would appear that nothing is going to stand in the way of the Belgica becoming the only place to be.
And, for a while, it is. With a hot regular band called The Shitz and innovative and provocative musicians and performance artists cycling in and out, the enlarged club goes through the roof. Van Groeningen, his textures-and-lyricism-attuned regular cinematographer Ruben Impens and the cranked-up musical selections partially provided by the Ghent band Soulwax supply such an adrenaline charge as to create a reasonable fascimile of the way the delirious owners, as well as clubbers, are feeling as they embrace their success; these are the good old days and, to revisit another song cliché, it seems inconceivable that this high should ever have to end.
In terms of giving the film a proper balance, in fact, the euphoria doesn't last long enough. Everyone does too many drugs, there's ready sex to be had and the cash just keeps rolling in, with Jo keeping his one good eye on things relatively responsibly under the circumstances. But he takes up with a shallow, highly annoying girlfriend, Manieke (Helene Devos), while Frank, his batteries so recharged that he stays in town for days on end, rarely sees his family anymore. Who wants to go home when you run the coolest place in town?
But the wages of success lead to certain problems, notably security issues and out-of-control clubbers that, despite Jo's desire for an open-to-all policy, eventually require the services of Mohammed and his thuggy doormen. The vibe of the place changes overnight, clearly signaling the end of an era.
Van Groeningen catches the ebb and flow of all this in a very fluid way, synching up dramatic and mood shifts with apt musical choices that make the film a sensual pleasure. There's not much more going on here other than the capturing of a moment, one that for some, especially the brothers but certainly for some regulars as well, might well represent the essence of the high point of their lives. Oh, yes, they'll say in decades to come, there was never anything as good as the Belgica, it was magic, you had to be there....
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition—opening night)
Production: Menuet Productions, Pyramide Productions, Topkapi Films
Cast: Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir, Helene Devos, Charlotte Vandermeersch
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Screenwriters: Arne Sierens, Felix van Groeningen
Producer: Dirk Impens
Director of photography: Ruben Impens
Art director: Kurt Rigolle
Costume designer: Ann Lauwerys
Editor: Nico Leunen
World sales: The Match Factory