The land of beer and chocolate doesn’t only provide heart disease to the sugar-happy, it also excites and arouses with unprecedented pieces of raw cinema that leaves juries all over the world aghast.
Directors like the French-speaking Dardenne brothers or the Flemish Felix Van Groeningen succeeded in many ways in portraying different realities in a country smaller than the size of a thumb, and with even tinier film budgets. The following is an introduction to some of Belgium’s finest cinematic classics.
13. The Misfortunates (Felix Van Groeningen, 2009)
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by notable Belgian writer Dimitri Verhulst, the film is essentially a cynical reminiscence of Gunther’s youth, when he lived at the utter bottom of rural Flanders’ lower class in his grandmother’s house, together with his father and three unemployed uncles who love nothing more than drinking themselves into a stupor every night.
Their daily grind of chasing tail and boozing is eventually interrupted when a child inspector named Ms. Fockedey (“a Fockedey keeps the doctor away”) tries to take hold of the situation, which is undoubtedly ill-suited for the kid. As a result, his father bursts into an alcoholic rage and eventually checks himself into rehab.
Despite the hopeless undertone of the film, its cynicism gets good use through hilariously wicked and depraved events that only the degenerate drunks of countryside Flanders can consider to be routine. It won awards at film festivals in Cannes, Ostend, Istanbul, and Warsaw.
12. Loft (Erik Van Looy, 2008)
In strict confidence, five friends buy a penthouse where they can meet their mistresses – in style – without alarming their better halves. It all runs smoothly until one morning they find the body of a young woman tied to the bed, covered in blood. Since they’re the only persons with keys to the penthouse, they become suspicious and gradually start turning against each other in a debauched story of deceit and promiscuity.
Starring a couple of Belgium’s best actors, director Erik Van Looy not only made the best Belgian film of 2009, but his film was also remade twice in foreign countries. The first remake happened in the Netherlands, under the same moniker, and the second and most successful one was made in Hollywood. Titled “The Loft”, it was released in 2014 and starred American actors, although Matthias Schoenaerts kept his role.
11. Bullhead (Michaël R. Roskam, 2011)
A continuously intense and testosterone-fueled tension sets the tone for an intriguingly dark thriller about a steroid-pumped cattle farmer whose business gets poisoned by shady affairs with the Belgian hormone mafia. Add to that a childhood trauma that scarred him forever and also his dreadfully complicated ties to women.
As trouble piles up for him, including the murder of a federal agent, he gradually becomes the animal that had been living inside him all along, obscuring him from any human sentiment. The aggression and bad decisions eventually take their toll.
“Rundskop” was Matthias Schoenaerts’ most impressive gig so far, requiring him to work out a buff physique and learn to speak a distinct dialect that made him an extraordinarily convincing local rancher; that not only made the film a thrill to watch, but also got him six “Best Actor” awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s safe to say “Rundskop” was the kickoff for Schoenaerts’ international career.
10. Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier, 2007)
“Ex Drummer” is another literary adaptation, this time from the work of notorious foul-mouthed writer and dirty old man Herman Brusselmans. Koen Mortier managed to turn a disgustingly good rock ‘n roll piece of literature into the most punk film Belgium has ever known, and takes the spectator to the lowest of all low places where profanity seems to be the only colorful element of every hopeless day.
The story begins with three slightly handicapped degenerates approaching a famous writer, Dries, to be the new drummer in their rock band as a desperate attempt to become famous. However, despite being appalled by their small lives and lowborn appearance in contrast to the slick elegance of his modern abode, he considers the offer. His reasons seem to be just for the experience, to escape his own small life, or because he thinks it might make a good story. What follows is a violent ride through Ostend’s putrid underbelly of trailer parks, broken homes, and shady bars.
Before re-baptizing their band name to The Feminists, they need to reassure that Dries has a handicap of his own – and they seem to have covered theirs pretty well. The guitarist is hearing impaired, their bass player has a stiff right arm (go figure), and the lisping singer has a thing for blood and women.
Dries completes the circle because he can’t actually drum, or at least that’s what he says. Throughout the sloppy race toward their first and only gig, on-and-off accompanied by the bassist’s meddling mother and gay groupies, he takes joy in manipulating them, no matter how depraved it gets. In his story, they’re already doomed.
From neglected children to nauseating households to anal rape in bathroom stalls, you would assume it doesn’t get any worse (yet they still left some room for insulting almost every minority in the book). At least Dries can return to his ivory tower at the end of the day where he continues living his libertine life in a bit more style, sharing his bed with his wife and the occasional third party.
The up-tempo conversations and nauseating course of events throughout “Ex Drummer” are backed by Millionaire’s noisy soundtrack, and they carry an artistically provocative vibe that reminds us of “Trainspotting”.
The film (which was Mortier’s directorial debut) can be considered an obscure artwork on its own and, however underappreciated by international critics, ruthlessly added a new perspective to Flemish film culture. Furthermore, it was the feature debut for many of the actors, including comedian Gunter Lamoot (who plays the bassist). One of Belgium’s musical veterans, Arno, also performs in a guest appearance at the final gig.
9. Daens (Stijn Coninx, 1992)
In late 19th century Aalst, one of the largest textile producing cities in Belgium, a priest who goes by the name of ‘Daens’ attempts to address and fight the excruciating working environments in which women and young children have to face on a daily basis along with hard and life-threateningly dangerous labor.
It was the cold and hard reality at that time, and it still was reality when this biopic was released, whether it was only in some countries or just to a smaller degree. By reason, the film was an influential depiction of recent history; in fact, if you’ve been to school in Belgium, the chances you’ve seen it are pretty high.
Daens is confronted with painfully poor families where young children need to provide for their family members, and vice versa. One of the reasons why textile producers exploited workers was because they were under a lot of pressure from foreign companies, but that didn’t make it right at all.
A factory head firing half the workers, with the support of a Christian political party leader, eventually led Daens to publicly complain about the social abuse. With the help of his brother’s newspaper, he could publish an article that addressed the situation, and it resulted in an investigation by the working commission.
The film’s historical reliability is disputed as historians say Jan Decleir made Daens a bigger man than he was at the time, but on the other hand, it did a more than decent job visualizing the atrocities of society after the Industrial Revolution.
8. The Memory Of A Killer (Erik Van Looy, 2003)
When a government official is murdered, two top detectives are determined to solve the case, but as they progress, it becomes more complicated than their regular homicide. The suspect is identified as a hitman sent from abroad, but with a perplexing side: the hitman (named Ledda) suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
On top of that, it also turns out that he’s being used by his boss Seynaeve to cover for multiple people who had used the services of a 12-year old prostitute. The girl, named Bieke, is one of his targets. When he refuses to kill a child, his employer sends out another hitman to kill Ledda as well as Bieke, who Ledda then kills.
Through the film, it becomes apparent how the worsening symptoms gradually impair his abilities as a killer, yet with full determination, he goes after Seynaeve and his associates, some of which turn out to be important political figures. Being chased by the police, he attempts to make contact with one of the detectives, resulting in him getting shot by the detective’s partner.
While the detectives try their best to prevent more bloodshed, Ledda manages to kill all of Seynaeve’s accomplices except for the last one, where his memory failed him. He gets caught and is hospitalized due to bad health. The prosecutor, who turns out to be on the payroll of Baron (his missed target), tries to have him killed because he has knowledge of a tape that could tie Baron to murder. However, Ledda escapes, again leaving him for the police to find.
The visually exciting film is based on the eponymous book by Jef Geeraerts. It builds up like a game of Clue, unraveling answers bit by bit so the viewer gets dragged into the same position as those who are trying to make sense of the murder case, guaranteeing to prolong suspense until the very end. It also contains references to certain political indiscretions such as the infamous “Roze Balletten” (Pink Ballets), which were sex parties attended by politicians and renowned businessmen.
In both the book and the film, there also seems to be a clear dichotomy between different police units. Geeraerts suggests there may be some kind of political war between judicial police and gendarmerie. The writer might have been a meticulous researcher, but subtlety doesn’t seem to be his strong suit as he obviously chooses the side of the judicial police throughout the book. An attentive spectator might pick up on this in the film as well.