For the past decade, Belgian cinema has been on the rise, capped by acclaimed efforts from Michaël R. Roskam and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Like his predecessors, debut director Robin Pront focuses on characters (Flemish in this case) stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Sylvie (Veerle Baetens) is a recovering drug addict who wanted to be a pop star, but ended up as a waitress in a strip club. Her former boyfriend, Kenny (Kevin Janssens), is an ex-con with a terrible haircut and a worse temper. While he was locked up, she fell for his brother, Dave (cowriter Jeroen Perceval), and they've been keeping it on the down low. Kenny and Dave have happy memories of youthful summers spent in the Ardennes of World War II infamy, and they'll return at the end for their own sort of war. If their mother has faith in Dave, she's given up on Kenny.
From the moment he exits the pen, it's clear that Kenny is gonna fuck things up for the lot of them. He's Robert De Niro in Mean Streets—or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. There would be no movie without him, but it's hard to feel anything for a racist stalker who insults the disabled (even Sylvie's Chihuahua keeps its distance). After Dave secures a job for him at a car wash, things go so wrong that they both end up unemployed. And Dave, a father-to-be, really needs the money. After that, the brothers have nowhere to go but down, and so down they go.
If anything, The Ardennes resembles Nicolas Winding Refn's visceral debut, Pusher more than any recent Belgian films, right down to the chilly techno score. It's an accomplished piece of work, but it's also a bummer, not only because the only LGBT characters (Jan Bijvoet and Sam Louwyck) are psychopaths, but also because the last act is so unrelentingly grim. Suffice to say: Cain and Abel have nothing on these twisted cats.
The Ardennes screens this weekend (Jan 20-22) at the Northwest Film Forum.