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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

2016 Sundance Film Festival
Belgica  (2017)
3 Stars
Directed by Felix van Groeningen.
Cast: Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Hélène De Vos, Boris Van Severen, Stefaan De Winter, Dominique Van Malder, Ben Benaouisse, Sara De Bosschere, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Bo De Bosschere, Sam Louwyck, Anjana Dierckx, Hannes Reckelbus, Silvanous Saow.
2017 – 127 minutes
Not Rated
Reviewed at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by Dustin Putman for, January 21, 2016.
A free-wheeling Belgium bar—and its owners, a pair of brothers more similar than they'd like to admit—spin manically out of control in "Belgica," writer-director Felix van Groeningen's follow-up to 2014's Oscar-nominated "The Broken Circle Breakdown." Groeningen and cinematographer Ruben Impens have a way of ushering the viewer into the story's party-every-night lifestyle, just as they later bow their heads to the inevitability of self-destruction. At once intoxicating and disquieting, the film captures one's attention, if not always one's sympathies. The siblings—younger, one-eyed Jo (Stef Aerts), recently moving back to the area with a dive bar called Cafe Belgica under his ownership, and unreliable husband and father Frank (Tom Vermeir), who latches onto Jo's success and partners up with him as they look to expand their hot spot—are prickly loose cannons who too often let their anger get the best of them. As businessmen, they are awfully green and not exactly responsible, but Frank nonetheless savvily riles up publicity by getting hot musician-deejay Davy Coppens (Felix van Groeningen) to appear. More propulsive musical acts follow, and so does the anything-goes clientele as Belgica becomes the go-to place for smoky, drug- and booze-fueled decadence. When Frank catches Jo using cocaine in a backroom with Davy, he warns him outright this could be the beginning of the end before jumping to also snort a line. Both brothers are setting themselves up for a fall, but it is the initially more put-together Frank whose addictive personality and penchant for casual infidelity is about to send him over the edge.

"Belgica" has a restless, pulsating rhythm all its own, treating expertly cut musical montages (the awesome score is by Belgian rock-electronica group Soulwax) as a vital storytelling technique in between its quieter moments of fallible human interaction. There are a few too many breakable objects tossed in anger at walls and on floors, but Groeningen and co-writer Arne Sierens mostly avoid these hoary melodramatic fallbacks for something purer and realer. As Frank, Tom Vermeir rivetingly sells his character's troubling downhill slide and the resulting neglect of his son and wife Isabelle (Charlotte Vandermeersch), while Stef Aerts (2015's "Cub") paints Jo as caddish and disheveled, but not without a steadier moral compass. This doesn't mean he is immune to mistakes—far from it—and the manner in which he handles the rather mature decisions vivacious girlfriend Marieke (a standout Hélène De Vos) makes in regard to both their futures is detestable. By the time he realizes the error of his ways, the damage has been done. His are actions he will have to live with in order to move forward. At first glance, the concluding scenes appear to come too neatly and easily, but looking closer reveals far more cutting, pessimistic—but, ultimately, accurate—implications. From lowly hole in the wall to an orgiastic, three-story Dante's Inferno, is Cafe Belgica worth saving? And moreover, will anyone still show up if it aims for a modicum of class? "Belgica" finishes on an unsettling note worth pondering.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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