Category Archives: Belgium

Hop (2002)

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to blow anything up.”

Apparently the salient characteristic of an anarchist is the irrepressible desire to blow things up. Well at least that’s the case in the film Hop from director Dominque Standaert. The story revolves around Justin (Kalomba Mboyi) a twelve-year-old illegal immigrant from Burundi who lives with his father Dieudonne (Ansou Diedhiou) in Belgium. After a minor fracas with the law stemming from a dispute with a neighbour over his cable television line, Dieudonne is arrested, questioned and subsequently deported by police to the Congo. Meanwhile Justin goes on the lam and takes refuge with anarchist Frans Misonne (Jan Decleir).

Frans at first plans to hand the boy right back to the police, but then when his female acquaintance Gerda (Antje de Boeck) objects, Frans allows the boy to stay. When Frans learns that Justin’s father has been deported, he comes up with a plan to negotiate for the father’s return to Belgium. Dreaming up the name, the Anarchistic Pygmy Revolutionary Front, Frans’s plan is to leave a dummy explosive on a monument, threatening to use the real thing if their demands aren’t met.

As the film develops, it’s revealed that Frans served time for an explosion in which three people were killed. Frans, who was the bomb expert in the Pressure Cooker Group, set the bomb and then called in a warning to police. The police however, failed to evacuate the building, and three people were killed. Frans subsequently served time–a remarkably short period of time as it turns out, and this is explained by the skill of Frans’s lawyer.

Frans and Gerda are the only Belgiums willing to help Justin, and while their comradeship is touching, the portrayal of anarchist Frans is problematic. On the one hand, he could have been any old hippie or any old radical, but the necessity of placing dynamite in the plot evidently and preposterously called for the creation of an anarchist. As one of the Pressure Cooker Group, he’s seen as someone who’s responsible for the deaths of three innocent bystanders. He keeps a secret stash of dynamite in his remote home and refuses to clean out his cesspit (an outhouse that serves as a toilet). Furthermore in its portrayal of Frans, the film doesn’t bother to explain any anarchist principles–even though Frans’s house is loaded with piles of books, pamphlets etc. Nor do we ever discover why Frans was running around Belgium with pressure cookers loaded with dynamite in the first place. Also, at the beginning of the film, in spite of the fact that he’s supposed to be an anarchist, his first reaction is to hand over Justin to the “authorities” and it’s only later in the film that he refuses to cooperate with the police–and this is a bit late since he’s already told the police where the boy can be found. Perhaps he cooperates because Justin is running around with a stash of dynamite–although the film doesn’t make the motive behind Frans’s cooperation clear. So we are left with a stereotype complete with the obligatory tendency to violent irresponsible action created for the purposes of the film.

Hop really has some interesting ideas, but the plot is extremely fanciful. The police who arrest Dieudonne are portrayed as rather cruel and deceptive, but later in the film, the Belgium equivalent of a SWAT team, at first rather sinister and threatening, are buffoons when pitted against the savvy 12 year old. Hop is visually a beautiful film, shot digitally in black and white. The plot addresses some serious, timely questions–the morality of allowing immigrants to sneak into the country in order to provide cheap labour, and the ethics of separating a child from a parent. The film’s title refers to a strategic shift of power between various groups, and the plot provides a few stories of how the Hop may be conducted, and then shows by example. Interestingly, it’s Justin’s fellow countrymen who manage to pull a Hop on the Belgium power structure, and this is accomplished in a very sly, slick manner–without explosives. However, the film stoops to the typical obligatory perpetuation of anarchist stereotypes–in this case–heavy on dynamite and out-of-control cesspits.

In Dutch and French with subtitles.

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Private Property (2006)

“You can afford lingerie, but when your kids need money, you’re out.”

The Belgium film, Private Property, is a tale of a destroyed, dysfunctional family. Apart from the fact that there’s a divorce in the background, we don’t really know the details of exactly what happened in the past. When the film begins, Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two adult sons, Thierry (Jeremie Renier) and Francois (Yannick Renier) in an old farmhouse. In many ways the three of them share an idyllic setting. The farmhouse is large, situated on a chunk of property, and there’s a river that runs nearby. Pascale’s ex husband lives nearby, and he’s remarried with a small child.

The first scene sets the tone for the film’s tense atmosphere, and it’s soon clear that the relationships between these three–Pascale and her two sons–are pathological. She takes showers in front of Thierry while he covertly eyes her nude reflection in the glass. Thierry and Francois, who are twins, bathe facing one another in the tub. This might have been alright when they were five, but now it’s downright peculiar. All they lack is a rubber duckie to make it complete. There’s a great deal of violence brewing beneath the surfaces of these relationships. Thierry, the dominant brother of the two, is belligerent, accusatory, insulting, and he treats both his mother and his brother very badly. Attached to his absent, disgruntled father, Thierry himself as some sort of surrogate, and he assumes the moral superiority of an indignant parent. He isn’t capable of a normal conversation with his mother. Francois, on the other hand, is quiet and kind to his mother, and he frequently intervenes between Pascale and Thierry. Pascale’s relationship with her sons is odd too. She more or less ignores Francois. Perhaps it’s because she can.

It’s clear that these three people share an unhealthy life, and this becomes even more obvious as the plot continues. Pascale’s ex feels perfectly free to waltz in and out of Pascale’s home and bedroom, ignoring the fact that he no longer has the right to do so. His soured relations with Pascale spill over onto his sons, and we see the corrosive results in Thierry’s explosive resentment.

Pascale drops a bombshell on her sons when she announces one day that she wants to sell the farmhouse and move away. It seems that she’s always wanted to open a bed and breakfast. She doesn’t tell her sons, however, that she has a relationship with the neighbour, and they’ve planned this project as part of their new life together. Thierry, who treats his mother like a bad child, doesn’t take her seriously, but when he sees that she’s moving forward with her plans, he reacts violently.

Unfortunately although the film has a very strong beginning, it fails to explore the fascinating darker aspects of the relationships. There’s so much here beneath the surface. Pascale argues that she has the right to a life of her own–she’s raised her sons and now it’s time to move on. There’s nothing wrong with that argument, but her sons are socially and emotionally immature. Pascale’s boyfriend argues that Thierry and Francois are men and should be out working. Well yes, he’s correct, but there’s a strange dependency between Pascale and her sons that’s never explored. The sons are isolated at the farmhouse and dependent on getting lifts from their mother in order to get to town. Both Thierry and Francois see Pascale as a resource, and neither one of them wants to let her go. Whereas Francois is pliant, Thierry tries to control his mother by bullying. While they act like bad children, there are hints that Pascale has hindered their maturity, and now that she wants to move on with her life, she would prefer them to grow up overnight. Why Pascale thinks it’s acceptable to shower in front of her adult son, for example, is never explored. Instead the film dissolves into cliches. The film nails so many aspects of the pathology of familial relationships, but then drops the subject half way, and instead we are left with the tantalizing, darker issues unexplored. In French with subtitles, Private Property is directed by Joachim Lafosse.

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La Promesse (1996)

Dark coming-of-age story

Teenager Igor (Jeremie Renier) and his glum father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) run a business smuggling illegal aliens into Belgium. Once there, the aliens are at Roger’s mercy, and he exploits this by stashing them in dilapidated buildings, charging phenomenal rent, and then squeezing them for extra money by charging for heating and false papers. This is all paid for by their labour–and most of the illegals also work for Roger on building sites. Roger uses Igor, who also works as an apprentice at a mechanic’s shop, as a henchman. Roger demands and expects complete loyalty from his 15-year-old son. Igor watches as his father busts in doors demanding rent, shakes the aliens down for money, and even participates in a scenario in which Roger deliberately feeds some aliens to a police sting.

The film makes it clear that Igor is corrupted. He assists his father and is rewarded by goodies. Igor seems to leave any troubling moral issues behind as he races on his much-loved go-cart with other boys his own age. But when a dying alien exacts a promise from Igor that the boy will care for his wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and child, Igor suddenly faces a moral dilemma.

La Promesse is a riveting and well-acted film from the Dardenne Brothers. Igor, is at first, unaware that he crosses a moral divide when he begins assisting Assita. His help begins in little, barely noticeable ways. Igor simply wants to keep his promise to the dying man–he doesn’t have any grand scheme in his head. The independent, suspicious Assista isn’t very grateful, and Roger soon sniffs his son’s growing humanity, and he reacts viciously. Events make the promise increasingly more difficult to keep, and inevitably, Igor has to make a moral choice. Igor has the look of a tough street urchin–thoroughly corrupted–or so it would appear–by a father who provides cigarettes and even prostitutes to his teenage son. Roger looks like a fairly harmless plump, not very bright, middle-aged man, but there’s a raw brutality there, and his seeming lack of intelligence is the result of years of blunted emotion. La Promesse can be classified as a coming-of-age film, but Igor comes of age in a dark, bleak adult world. An excellent thought-provoking film–in French with English subtitles.

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Australia (1989)

“I wanted to be left alone.”

In the film, Australia wool merchant Edouard Pierson (Jeremy Irons) returns to his native Belgium to help salvage the failing family wool business. Edouard, a pilot during WWII, immigrated to Australia 10 years earlier in 1945. He’s estranged from his surviving family, and he has a 12-year old daughter (Danielle Lyttleton) in Australia that no one is aware of. Once in Belgium, Edouard meets Jeanne Gauthier (Fanny Ardant), the beautiful wife of an affluent man, and he’s deeply attracted to her.

The film contrasts the Old World–Belgium–with the New World–Australia. Edouard’s hometown is heavily industrialized with ancient factories, but Australia is sun-baked, wide-open spaces. Edouard is well aware that the wool industry in Belgium is dying, and he’s mentally made the adjustment, and accepted that his future lies in Australia. Edouard’s brother, Julien (Tcheky Karyo), refuses to accept that the business is finished, and antagonism between the two brothers emerges as a result. Curiously, while Edouard has absorbed the financial realities of life in Australia, he has not adjusted to the present in his personal life. Edouard’s journey back to his former home in Belgium helps him to forge together the past and the present.

In spite of the fact that the story unfolds in three different countries–Australia, Belgium, and England, the film goes nowhere. There are hints of a dark secret that caused the rift between Edouard and his family, but this is all a storm in a teacup. Jeremy Irons–who always plays the bruised, emotionally devastated male so well–is great in the role, but unfortunately the script doesn’t really warrant the extreme behaviours its characters endure. Fanny Ardant is luminous, but her character is problematic. Who on earth goes to a hotel for a wild fling, but then wastes time whining about how hard it is to be a little rich girl? Australia is built like an epic soap opera, but it is ultimately a disappointing film with a lackluster ending. In French with English subtitles. From director Jean-Jacques Andrien

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The Wall (1998)

 “This chip van is all our lives.”

The Belgium comedy film The Wall begins by exploring the country’s linguistic differences through a brief history and some historical footage. There’s the Dutch speaking North, and the French speaking South–known as Wallonia. Writer/Director Alain Berliner capitalizes on Belgium’s history, and takes a good-natured dig at the country’s ethnicity controversy. In the film, after centuries of division and squabbles, the government hatches a secret plot. At midnight, on the eve of the millennium, a wall is erected which firmly divides north and south Belgium. This is a problem for our hero, Albert (Daniel Hanssens) the lonely, plump owner of a chip shop that happens to sit on the newly formed border between the two countries. Albert’s chip shop is literally divided in two, and Albert who attends a New Year’s Eve party in the south can’t get back to his chip shop (half of which is in the north).

Taking a sly poke at Belgium culture, The Wall is a unique film. At the beginning, the surreal plot is fresh, amusing, and energetic. The solemn ghost of Albert’s father pesters Albert constantly with advice, and Albert so longs for love that he writes his own fortunes in the fortune cookies he gives out with each portion of chips. It looks as though his love life may be improving when he meets medical secretary Wendy (Pascale Bal), but he knows he can’t compete with her DJ boyfriend who’s “connected to the internet.”

Unfortunately, after about the halfway point, The Wall simply doesn’t go anywhere. The threads of magical realism are unhappily blended with scenes of sinister militarism. With Albert’s dad shouting, “this is the land of surrealism”, the plot takes huge liberties into meaningless absurdity. The Wall seems to be an ‘idea’ film that flirts with too many genres (musical, magical realism, thriller, romance), and the end result is a plot ends that’s too messy to satisfy. The Wall is in Dutch and French with English subtitles.

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L’Enfant (2005)

“We’ll have another.”

When the film L’Enfant begins, teenage mother Sonia (Deborah Francois) returns to her squalid little flat with her new baby, Jimmy. In her absence, however, the baby’s father, petty criminal Bruno (Jeremie Renier), has ‘sublet’ the flat for a few days. This doesn’t particularly bother Sonia, and she nonchalantly sets off to find Bruno who is homeless and lives in a makeshift hut by the side of a river. Bruno sponges off of Sonia’s benefit money, and also hustles small-time narcotics deals. He’s also organized local children into a gang. He takes a percentage of the proceeds of their crimes–hocking the loot in second-hand shops.

It’s chilling to see these two young parents as they careen towards disaster. When Bruno makes a score, the cash is rapidly frittered away. Obviously neither parent gives much thought to the future–even when poor little Jimmy arrives. Bruno soon comes up with the brilliant idea of selling Jimmy on the black market. It seems to be a fairly cut-and-dried situation for him, and he’s used to selling anything of worth that comes his way.

Watching L’Enfant is a painful experience, and several scenes cause this viewer to wince at the profoundly depressing future that awaits Jimmy. Bruno and Sonia’s hapless parenting screams disaster, and the film’s emotional blankness reflects Bruno’s moral landscape–there’s simply nothing there–it’s all impulse, desire, and short term-gain. With intense camera focus, the film creates an intimate atmosphere surrounding Bruno and Sonia. In one scene for example, there’s a sensation that the viewer is actually traveling on the bus with the couple. And that very intimacy also highlights the vast moral void that constitutes Bruno’s character. Even when Bruno attempts to repair the damage of his actions, his motives remain unclear and open to interpretation. This is not a film that provides a moral solution, and indeed its ending implies that a bleak future lies ahead. Directed by Belgium brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the film is in French with English subtitles.

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