Directed by Robin Pront
Opens January 6 at the Village East
A crime drama about trouble brewing between two petty-criminal brothers, the Belgian film The Ardennes has scuzzy style to spare but a setup that couldn’t feel creakier. The movie, the feature debut by director Robin Pront, gets underway with a striking shot of a robbery gone wrong: a fully clothed, stocking-masked man emerges, in balletic slo-mo, from a swimming pool, clearly scrambling to get off the posh premises as fast as possible. In the aftermath of this botched job, the brash Kenny (Kevin Janssens) takes the fall and goes to jail, while the more introspective Dave (Jeroen Perceval) takes up with his brother’s girlfriend, Sylvie (Veerle Baetens), unbeknownst to the man behind bars. The new couple have just learned she’s pregnant when Kenny gets paroled four years into his sentence. But as these things tend to go in the movies, no one tells Kenny about any of this, and so he immediately sets about trying to win back Sylvie.
Pront’s film, which Belgium selected as its horse in the race for this year’s foreign-language Oscar (and which shares a producer with one of the country’s most recent nominees, 2011’s similarly aggro Bullhead), naturally includes a number of scenes in which the viewer, privy to the full facts of the situation, must cringe for Kenny, who’s not. The awkwardness is never more painful than during a scene in which Mom, her two sons, and Sylvie all sit down together for Christmas dinner. Were it not for the particular who-knows-what dynamics of such scenes, hair-trigger Kenny would not be a candidate for a share of the audience’s sympathies. During an outing to the warehouse club where Sylvie works, he punches a man for refusing to agree that Jean-Claude Van Damme is “the best”; at Dave’s longtime place of work, a car wash where he’s also recently managed to get his brother hired, Kenny starts showing up late and then winds up brawling with a couple of his co-workers.
All the while, the industrial locations, shot in a sickly-looking pallor by cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert, and the electronic score, a sort of brutalist pulse composed by Hendrik Willemins, convey a strong sense that things won’t end well for these hardscrabble Flemings. And indeed, for their last act, co-writers Pront and Perceval move the action to the mountains, where Kenny’s former cellmate Stef (Jan Bijvoet, more memorable as the ailing anthropologist in last year’s Embrace of the Serpent) pledges to help the brothers clean up the mess they’ve inevitably gotten themselves into. During this final stretch, Pront’s film amps up the body count (we glimpse the graphic dismemberment of a corpse) as well as a kind of anarchic humor (a pack of menacing ostriches appears during a late showdown), tapping into an unpredictable energy that might’ve benefited the earlier domestic material. Despite such flashes of promise, The Ardennes can’t overcome what feels like a flawed conception—it is, in essence, a plodding domestic soap trying to pass itself off as an adrenalized neo-noir.