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Belgica | 2016 Sundance Film Festival Review

Bar None: Van Groeningen Returns to Musical Inclinations for Vibrant Sibling Portrait

Felix van Groeningen Belgica

Belgian auteur Felix Van Groeningen, the front runner of the Belgian New Wave, returns with his fifth feature, Belgica, a portrait of two estranged brothers reuniting to open a successful night club, an experience forcing them to reexamine both their shortcomings and sometimes toxic enabling of each other’s worst tendencies. The film follows a career high for Van Groeningen, who scored an international breakout with 2013’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, another musically inclined drama which netted him an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film. Though his latest still includes unpredictable emotional highs and lows within a familiar set of family and friends, his latest is more sobering by comparison. With a killer soundtrack this is a well-proportioned character piece for its two leads, requiring a bit of patience for the film’s rather lofty running time considering a lack of definite dramatic catalysts. Still, this infectious portrait of Belgium’s night life is another of Van Groeningen’s affable cinematic endeavors.

Jo (Stef Aerts) has opened up his own dive bar, the Belgica (its emblem the silhouette of a moose mounting a rhino). While balancing a burgeoning romance with Marieke (Helene De Vos), he contacts his estranged older brother Frank (Tom Vermeir) in a bid to help him expand the business. While simmering, unresolved family issues involving their father remain in the foreground, Frank is pleased to reunite with his brother and enthusiastically buys into the Belgica, even though it means leaving his pregnant wife and their young son alone with her dog kennel business to pursue this new venture. The expanded club is met with great success and quickly becomes a new popular night club in Belgium. But balancing familial and relationship responsibilities with the business proves to wear them both down in different ways.

Van Groeningen has fashioned a number of critically acclaimed titles already, including 2009’s notable The Misfortunates, which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. Like that specific title, Belgica feels luxuriously textured with real looking people, its actors framed within unavoidably shabby surroundings despite their more lavish desires. One can easily imagine the smells accompanying such dreary visions, such as the club’s overflowing toilets, at one point amended by the swarthy Frank when he rolls up his sleeves and fishes out the gender specific blockage. And much like The Broken Circle Breakdown, Van Groeningen once again circles problematic familial topics, here superficially dealt, like the brothers’ problematic history or a subplot involving abortion. Likewise, women characters feel a bit too peripheral, especially compared to Broken Circle.

Jo is easily the more likeable character, and Stef Aerts gives a subtle performance as the soft-spoken bar owner who finally must confront his troubled older brother. Tom Vermeir steals more scenes thanks to Frank’s outlandish behavior, a coke-snorting boy child who abandons family to pursue adolescent dreams. Scenes shared with his disappointed wife and son tend to provide the film with its most emotionally hefty sequences, which we sometimes forget about thanks to the glittery flurry of notable musical talents paraded throughout, with original music provided courtesy of Soulwax.

At times, Belgica attains the emotional authenticity one wished something like Randall Miller’s 2013 portrait of iconic New York nightclub CBGB had been able to muster, but some may feel its attention to musical detail unnecessarily bloats the running time of an otherwise familiar domestic drama. Issues concerning small business owners falling prey to corporate ideations via a subplot involving body guards keeping out the riff-raff (i.e., non-white people) could have been explored a bit more in depth, but seems shortchanged in favor of the brotherly troubles.

Van Groeningen co-writes with Arne Sierens this time around, but, once again, the screenplay represents the final product’s weakest point considering the familiarity and lack of general finesse. Still, Belgica is compelling throughout, and Van Groeningen proves to be an expert at formulating visuals we don’t just see but smell. His regular DP Ruben Impens is on hand and turns Belgica into the sort of popping dive bar you want to flee to immediately after watching the film.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Reviewed on January 21st at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival – World Dramatic Competition Programme. 127 Min.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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