'The Belgian Road to Cannes' ('La belge histoire du festival de Cannes'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

The Belgian Road to Cannes Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A fascinating and fun if also somewhat superficial ride.

Belgian director Henri de Gerlache looks at the Belgian films that were selected over the years by the Cannes Film Festival.

A valentine to the Belgian films that were selected by the Cannes Film Festival over the years, The Belgian Road to Cannes (La belge histoire du festival de Cannes) is a fun but never particularly profound or even complete dive into the cinematic history of the multilingual nation wedged between France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Filled with short clips and a few amusing anecdotes, this looked right at home in the Cannes Classics section. Its running time of around an hour seems handily designed for future placement on Francophone TV channels, while other festivals and events with a special interest in Belgian cinema might also be tempted.

Writer-director Henri de Gerlache made the two-part TV special Beautiful Belgium in 2013 and the basic idea behind that project — explore Belgian cultural sights and combine that with a lot of impressive drone footage — seems to have remained intact, though the cultural landmarks are now films that screened in Cannes. The Belgian productions that have been selected over the years, over 120 titles in total over 70 editions of the festival, range from animated films and shorts to fiction features, mockumentaries and, of course, a few Palme d’or winners, including two films from the ever-popular Dardenne brothers.

To try and create a throughline for this disparate group of titles, de Gerlache has decided to follow a campervan, duly decked out with Belgian cinema paraphernalia, which is being driven from one film location to the next and one conversation with an industry person — including directors, producers, actors, animators, etc. — to the next. First stop is the beach of Ostend, with de Gerlache unearthing a fascinating bit of trivia, as Francophone narrator Stephane De Groodt explains that the Belgian beach resort was once in the running as a host venue for an international film festival, an honor that finally went to … Cannes.

Obligatory stops include a chat with the first Belgian Palme d’Or winner, animator Raoul Servais, who entertainingly explains how he was once able to use his 1979 Palme for best short as a passport at the Italian border. Also interviewed is Jaco Van Dormael, whose Toto the Hero won the Camera d’Or in 1991 and who was upgraded to the main competition for his second feature, The Eight Day, which would walk away with a double best-actor award for Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne.

Not all films are always selected by Cannes, though, as Van Dormael discovered with his ambitious Jared Leto/Diane Kruger vehicle Mr. Nobody, which eventually premiered in Venice. On hand to briefly explain the selection process of the festival is none other than Thierry Fremaux, the current head of the festival, who also tries to suggest what some of the differences are between the French and Belgian films he has seen over the years.

Like much of the doc itself, he unwittingly draws parallels between French-language Belgian cinema and its French counterpart, which does a disservice to Flemish cinema, which is in Dutch. Of all the interviewees, the only Flemish filmmaker who gets any real airtime is The Misfortunates director Felix van Groeningen (and he is interviewed in French rather than his native Dutch). He, too, experienced some of the fickleness of the selection committee, with editor John Pirard underlining this fact by placing a soundbite of Fremaux — “We like the idea of a fidelity towards our directors” — right before van Groeningen admits that none of his films since The Misfortunates, including the Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown and Sundance opener Belgica, have ever been selected by Cannes.

Belgian Road doesn’t quite follow the story of the Belgians in Cannes in chronological order, jumping back and forth in time, with Henri Storck’s Le banquet des fraudeurs from 1952, for example, mentioned after Servais’ Palme from 1979 and then segueing to one of the most interesting-sounding titles: If the Wind Frightens You, a 1960 incest drama from Emile Degelin that came out the same year as Godard’s Breathless and had a score by the same composer: Martial Solal. André Delvaux, one of the founding fathers of Belgian cinema who made films in both Dutch and French, isn’t mentioned until much later. He was also a jury member in Cannes in 1975, which the doc curiously omits, though it does mention that crime writer Georges Simenon was the president of the jury the year La Dolce Vita won the Palme.

Though actors Emilie Dequenne and Fabrizio Rongione are on hand to chat about their experience with the Dardenne brothers’ first Palme winner, Rosetta, the siblings themselves are conspicuous only by their absence. Also missing as interviewees are such names as Bouli Lanners, who has had one short and two features premiere at Cannes, but whose films are at least excerpted briefly, and Joachim Lafosse, who has brought three features to Cannes in the last eight years but who is only mentioned in passing.

Some of the anecdotes are certainly amusing, including a surprising bit during which Fremaux struggles to remember where all the films of the Dardennes are set: “Umm … on the Meuse, right?” The film also manages to give a fascinating if necessarily somewhat checkered overview of the breadth and diversity of Belgian cinema. What being selected by Cannes really means or has meant for Belgian cinema is never quite made clear, though the words of director Benoit Marriage, who muses that “the stubborn obsession with Cannes isn’t always healthy,” are certainly worth remembering.

The original French title — no Flemish moniker in sight — contains an untranslatable pun, as “belge histoire” sounds a lot like “belle histoire,” and having had over 120 films play at the world's most important film festival is certainly something that can be described as a beautiful thing.

Production companies: Alize Production
Narrator: Stephane De Groodt
Director-screenwriter: Henri de Gerlache, based on an idea by Philippe Reynaert
Producers: Bernard de Launoit
Director of photography: Bernard Vervoort
Editor: John Pirard
Music: Charles de Moffarts
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)

In French, Dutch
62 minutes