10 Films To Watch Before Visiting Belgium

Matthias Schoenaerts in 'Suite Française' | © Alliance
Matthias Schoenaerts in 'Suite Française' | © Alliance
Photo of Nana Van De Poel
9 December 2016

Besides having a growing film industry of its own, Belgium is increasingly attracting more international productions thanks to gorgeous historical settings and the gentle nudges of an advantageous tax system. Here’s what to watch when wondering what sceneries you can expect before traveling to the heart of Europe.

In Bruges (2008)

For all the cheer that charming medieval Bruges usually brings out in its visitors, grumpy hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) isn’t having any of it. Thanks to a hit gone wrong, he and his colleague Ken are forced to hide out in Belgium’s most touristy city for two weeks. While Ken happily goes about his sightseeing, director Martin McDonagh provides enough fairytale settings to make anyone fall in love with Bruges from their couch. Ray’s sneering remarks throughout – ‘If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but it didn’t, so it doesn’t’ – provide an entertaining contrast that explains a large part of the film‘s cult hit status.

Nymphomaniac Vol. I and II (2013)

For his two-part, 5.5-hour (director’s cut) feature about the promiscuous life of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Danish helmer Lars von Trier and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro used a bunch of European cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark and Cologne, Germany. Most of the exteriors were shot in Ghent, though, and take a gritty, realist approach to the medieval city that’s usually easier to shoot at its most charming.

Suite Française (2014)

An emotional World War II drama based on the eponymous novel, it was only fitting that Suite Française should be shot in Belgium and France. The tale of forbidden love between a local woman and a high-ranking German officer in Nazi-occupied France called for a sleepy wartime village and wide open meadows. The first outdoor shots were filmed in Marville, a town at the French-Belgian border that has managed to stay free of traffic signs and other symbols of our modern times; the rest of the exteriors with sweeping nature shots show the countryside of green Belgian provinces Henegouwen and Waals-Brabant at its most beautiful.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

For his latest fantasy-fueled feature, Tim Burton needed a mansion where peculiar children with creepy magical powers could hide from the world. Urban exploration fans have long discovered that Belgium has no shortage of eerie old villas, and Ransom Riggs, the author of the best-selling children’s book the 2016 film is based on, had even based his description of the magical place in his novel on the abandoned Château Nottebohm in Brecht, near Antwerp. After that particular location had fallen through due to safety issues, Burton and crew found new creepy digs in the same neighborhood: the Gothic Torenhof Castle in Brasschaat.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)

Even before Flanders’ convenient ‘tax shelter’ was in effect, Belgium allured Hollywood with its sense of history. Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, a technicolor classic with the tremendous Joanne Woodward in the lead, sees a troubled New York homemaker and her husband become closer after they visited Bastogne in the forested Belgian Ardennes, where he fought off the last great German offensive of the Second World War.

Brussels by Night (1983)

Journalist-turned-director Marc Didden made an impressive career switch by debuting with Brussels by Night in the 80s. An intensely dark, brooding film that went against every rule the local industry was operating under at the time, Didden’s low-budget cult film captures the torment of a depressed man who wanders the streets of Brussels at night. As he drowns his sorrows in grimy pubs, the city’s neon lights emphasize the sad picture of the urban dweller lost in the shadow side of the metropolis until things come to a dramatic resolution on the cinematically framed inclined plane of Ronquières.

Belgica (2016)

Another glimpse at retro Belgian nightlife is offered by Felix van Groeningen (The Misfortunates, The Broken Circle Breakdown) in Belgica. When West-Flemish brothers Jo and Frank convert a smoky bar on Ghent’s party central Vlasmarkt into a club, everyone’s new favorite temple of debauchery is born. Floating on an electric soundtrack by Belgian electronic masters Soulwax, the alcohol-fueled flick bathes in a raucous atmosphere.

Any Way the Wind Blows (2003)

Tom Barman’s personal love letter to Antwerp thrives just as much on a strong Belgian soundtrack as Belgica does, though the older Any Way the Wind Blows is all about rock ‘n roll rather than electronic music. Composed, written, and directed by the frontman of rock band dEUS, the film takes advantage of separate storylines to show off the port city at its most enticing, from the wide boulevards to the docks and down into the old St Anna pedestrian tunnel underneath the river Scheldt.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

One building in Marvel’s first Guardians of the Galaxy installment is particularly familiar to commuters from Liège. To create an intergalactic universe that didn’t look too alienating, James Gunn plucked and tweaked futuristic-looking constructions from the real world, including London’s Millennium Footbridge and the Belgian train station erected out of giant white ribs and designed by renowned architect Calatrava.

Bullhead (2011)

Best described as film noir in the Flemish countryside; Bullhead stars Belgian golden boy Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky, a pumped-up cattle farmer with a troubled past. As Jacky sinks deeper and deeper into the hormone trade and the seedy underbelly of the industry, director Michaël R. Roskam and director of photography Nicolas Karakatsanis steep the film in Limburg locales with close-ups of muscular, steaming bovines and wide, misty panoramas of the rolling landscape.

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