The Belgian film industry is, by and large, underappreciated by viewers, critics and filmmakers. In European cinema, France, Germany and Scandinavia have been dominating the international film market while output from smaller countries often travels under the radar. In some cases films are even attributed to different countries altogether. Belgium has a high hit rate for critically acclaimed films, however, and below are 10 films to start you off in the world of Belgian film.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)
Based on the stage play of the same name, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a love story about Elise and Didier. As with many love stories, the couple are from different walks of life. Elise is a tattooist and a religious realist, while Didier is a romantic atheist who plays the banjo. The two of them quickly fall in love, driven by their mutual love of bluegrass music. In addition to the storyline and performances, the exceptional soundtrack makes this film especially worth viewing. The plot follows the couple’s relationship for seven years when all of a sudden the main characters are faced with the diagnosis of their six year old daughter’s serious illness. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a touching film about love and faith.
Bullhead is a Dutch-language film using primarily Limburgish accents. This is a necessary step as the narrative is based on the true story of the murder of Karel von Noppen. The film, like the event, follows a Limburgish cattle farmer who is approached by a notorious and unsavory veterinarian to make a underhanded deal with a beef trader. The film is non-linear, giving it a jerky flow that complements the intensity of the film’s main subject matter. The highlight of the film comes from the performance of the lead actor, Matthias Schoenaerts. In addition to his physical transformation, he is able to convey the pain, fear, anger and sadness of his character, which makes the film truly captivating.
This Academy Award nominated film was adapted from the story by Louis Paul Boon and the screenplay was adapted into a stage musical some 16 years later, showing the longstanding importance of the story. Daens is a historical drama set in the 1890s. It follows Father Adolf Daens who returns to his home town of Aalst where the living conditions of the poor are abysmal, child labor is rife and the Catholic church supports the bourgeoisie in oppressing workers. The priest then goes on a mission to change these conditions and eventually authorities make the town a safer, less exploitative environment. The film provides a look into a largely unspoken part of Belgian history and gained its actors a slew of nominations and awards.
The Kid With A Bike (2011)
The Dardenne brothers wrote and directed this film about an abandoned 12-year-old boy, living in foster care, who turns to a strange woman for comfort. It is often a risk casting a child in a lead role, but Thomas Doret is able to convincingly and effectively play the young, emotionally troubled Cyril. After Cyril’s father leaves him, he obsessively searches for his bicycle which is the last remaining symbol of their relationship. Along the way he meets the town’s hairdresser, played by Cécile de France, who becomes driven to look after the fostered boy. This is not a straight journey from loss to salvation, nor is the ending a tidy conclusion. This is a film that makes you think about how to deal with loss and how far you will go to help others.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Man Bites Dog is arguably one of Belgium’s most well-known and highly regarded film exports, particularly in the art film world, from which it has gained a substantial cult following. A black comedy and crime mockumentary so brutal that someone recently described it as ‘making Reservoir Dogs look like Wallace and Gromit’. The storyline focuses on a film crew who follow a renowned thief and serial killer as he goes about his daily routine. As the plot goes on, the crew lose their objectivity and morality and begin to help with the killings. The film’s violence was too much for some audiences and it was banned in Sweden upon release. Made on a shoestring budget, it showcases the spirit of independent filmmaking.
The Memory of a Killer (2003)
The Memory of a Killer, also known as The Alzheimer Case, is one of Belgium’s most popular and renowned crime films and there have even been discussions of an American version being produced. The main characters, Vincke and Verstuft, are the best detectives at the Antwerp police department and are faced with the disappearance of a leading businessman as well as the murder of two prostitutes. The main suspect is a hitman who, it transpires, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Several twists in the film mean that the hitman suddenly becomes the hunted and his illness adds another dimension to the traditional cat-and-mouse chase of crime films.
La Promesse (1996)
Like many of the most successful films coming out of Belgium, La Promesse centers around illegal activity and those who are living on the edge of society. Father and son duo, Roger and Igor, make a living renting apartments to illegal immigrants, who they sometimes use as workers as well, in addition to other illegal side projects. A problem arises when an injury occurs on the job and exposes Roger and Igor’s game and with it the differences in values between the different characters. The film is directed by the Dardenne brothers, who went on to also direct The Kid With A Bike, and it certainly has their signature style – the focus is again on a father and son relationship – at its heart.
The third film from the Dardenne brothers on our list follows a young and impulsive 17-year-old who tries to get a job in order to move away from her current living situation in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother. Again, a parent-child relationship is at the center of the storyline with the actions of the wider community having a strong impact on the main character. Rosetta succeeds in being both gritty and realistic, allowing the audience to get into the head of the characters while also depicting the violence and harsh living conditions affecting these character. The film had a wider societal impact as new minimum wage and labor reform laws were legislated to prevent the exploitation of minors.
Toto the Hero (1991)
Belgium has its fair share of child talent, and Toto the Hero was one of the first showcases of this talent on the international stage. The film has a very complex and inventive structure for its time, with dream sequences and multi-threaded flashbacks being used throughout and events being repeated and tweaked depending on which character’s perspective the film is showing at any given time. This is a switched at birth story with the sophistication that surpasses other films in the same genre. While many films have tried non-linear storytelling devices, Toto the Hero is arguably the best example of how to do this in a way that keeps the film engaging and stylistically interesting at the same time.
Two Days One Night (2014)
From the oldest film on the list to the newest, and rounding off with a final Dardenne Brothers film. The impact of the brothers on Belgian cinema and the wider European film industry cannot be underestimated, and the many awards that they have received only go a small way to show this. This film, and Marion Cotillard in particular, was nominated extensively at all of the major film festivals. In Two Days One Night, Cotillard’s character finds out that her colleagues have opted for a pay increase in exchange for her dismissal. In the ensuing weekend, she goes about trying to convince them to allow her to keep her job. The film is a touching and humanistic rendition, which, typically for the Dardenne brothers, makes an interesting, thought provoking watch that will stay with you long afterwards.
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