No holds barred

Felix van Groeningen on music, hedonism and real-life inspiration in Belgica.

by Amber Wilkinson

Van Groeningen:
Van Groeningen: "What inspired me was, why do people go out? What is attractive about nightlife? What sensations do you have, how does music play with people? How does it get people extremely excited and make people want to jump and scream?"
Felix van Groeningen's Belgica was one of the Day One films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it competed in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It recounts the story of two brothers, Jo (Stef Aerts) and Frank (Tom Vermeir) who take on shared ownership of the titular bar. Their success with customers brings with it personal problems, as Frank begins to enjoy the hedonistic lifestyle a bit too much, causing tensions with his wife Isabelle (Charlotte Vandermeersch), while Jo's relationship with his girlfriend Marieke (Helene De Vos) also hits the rocks.

Music played a key part in Van Groenigen's previous film, the Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown, and it has a strong part to play again here, in terms of generating the mood but van Groeningen says he didn't specifically seek out the projects, insisting: "I don't know a lot about music to be honest."

He adds: "I stumbled across Broken Circle Breakdown, it's something that just happened to me. It was so far from my world, in a way, that that was the exciting thing to do. I connected in a very personal way with the story, even though I don't have children, but in the way it deals with death and questions about believing in God or not. It's universal but it touched me on a very personal level so that's why I did it. Music wise, it was just, like, okay, this works. When I first saw the play I thought it was amazing and being able to translate it into cinematic language was exciting to me.

Belgica director Felix van Groeningen:
Belgica director Felix van Groeningen: "If someone tells you a story you have to be respectful of that."
"Somehow I came up of doing this film Belgica, about a bar, which is inspired - not based, because we took quite a lot of liberties – by a bar my father actually started and then sold to two brothers. I was really intrigued by the setting and the scope of the story and the personal affection I had for that kind of environment. The music thing was in the back of my head, that it could be interesting. It was only when I started writing it that it became more of a part of it – when I was writing I realised it could become part of the core of Belgica, telling the story through the music. My point is, I think, is that it is probably because I did Broken Circle Breakdown that I came up with the idea of doing it in this film. But it wasn't pre-conceived."

The music is used to give a real sense of the bar lifestyle in the film, with one key moment as van Groeningen's camera tracks through the club, being accompanied by a massive increase in the volume level, as we become absorbed into the party world.

Van Groeningen says: "I love cinema and playing with images and creating moods. I love to tell a story first and foremost but that aspect of cinema is something that's very appealing to me. So that setting is very inviting, to go and play with it – with the way you shoot things and bring music in.

"What inspired me was, why do people go out? What is attractive about nightlife? What sensations do you have, how does music play with people? How does it get people extremely excited and make people want to jump and scream?"

The bar and performances feel so authentic that it comes as a surprise to learn that all of the many groups who are featured as acts in the film were created specifically for it and the eclectic music they play all sprang from the pen of composers Soulwax, brothers David and Stephen Dewaele.

"They were all different kinds of musicians brought together to form fictitious bands," says van Groeningen. "So the composers were two brothers and made all the music. They were really interested in the story and in why certain bands would play there and how it was adding to the story. They were asking me questions all the time. Then they came up with existing examples of bands. I went back to writing and thought, this type of song would be great here for this reason. Usually, if I had to make a choice it had to do with energy or emotion, then they made up a new song and a band for that moment."

Jo (Stef Aerts) and Frank (Tom Vermeir)
Jo (Stef Aerts) and Frank (Tom Vermeir)
Van Groeningen says the bands played live, which also helped life the mood of the film.

"It made the atmosphere really good. You get a feeling that the audience are having fun. That's the hardest thing if you have club scenes, when you have 200 or 300 extras who have to be there all day long pretending that they're listening to good music. So we created a concert – people were going wild. Secondly, we had small cameras, so we were very mobile and we had two cameras – it was the first time we shot on two cameras but you work a lot quicker so it's really worth it if you have complex scenes."

The women play a lesser role in the film, with Isabelle being particularly long-suffering as Frank's wife. The role is played by Van Groeningen's girlfriend and he says he collaborated a lot on the role when he was writing the script.

"There's a very personal reason why she wanted to do the movie and what she thinks is special about this woman – because she had seen it at home. Her dad was a great guy just like Frank but had a really hard time to be at home and deal with everyday life. Her mum was very forgiving because she loved him so much and thought, maybe if I give him freedom everything will be all right, and that's the story. She knows what is going on but she lets it be, she's there for the family and in the right moment, she goes to his brother and says, 'We've got to fix this'. If you look at it that way, I don't think she's a weak character, I think she's strong but she's not obvious.

"Even Marieke's character is a very strong character. There's something very strange about her. I'm really proud of her and the actress too – what she pulled off is extraordinary."

This is first and foremost a tale of brotherly love, however, and van Groeningen says that it is a difficult juggling act to create a fiction from a factual situation and he ended up drawing on a lot of real-life detail, such as the fact that the man whom Jo is based only has the use of one eye. This has resulted in a complex disclaimer at the start of the movie - “all persons depicted are fictitious – even existing ones”.

Jo (Stef Aerts) and Marieke (Hélène De Vos) in Belgica:
Jo (Stef Aerts) and Marieke (Hélène De Vos) in Belgica: "Even Marieke's character is a very strong character. There's something very strange about her."
"The big struggle with this film was I was intrigued by the setting," says the director. "I started talking to the brothers and told them I was interested in doing a film with those stories but I didn't know where it was going to lead to.

"In my first treatment, the younger brother had two eyes. But I felt I was being drawn towards a lot of the authentic details in the original story. I thought, it's just too important to not use it in the movie. As it happened to me, I told them, this is what is happening, it's getting closer to your story. But, on the other hand, I want total freedom to make my film. That's why the disclaimer has an ambiguity to it because part of it is fiction and part of it is what I've seen.

"So it was difficult to communicate it to them but on the other hand they were extremely co-operative and respectful of my work and said, 'Do what you have to do'. We came to the point when we had to say it has something to do with them, but to protect everyone, we said, 'It's ficiton'.

"It was really important that they would be ok with it. If someone tells you a story you have to be respectful of that. It's been a real struggle, especially with how I deal with it and communicate it. I tried to be as honest as possible and they appreciate it. If they wouldn't have been ok with it I don't know what would have happened – I probably wouldn't have made the movie or I would have had to change it. What I said up front was that it wasn't going to be so close to their story."

The film is set for release in Belgium, France and Germany in the coming weeks and van Groeningen is already thinking about his next project, which he says will just have music in the background this time.

"It's Beautiful Boy, it's a memoir of a journalist called David Sheff. It's also a father/son story, it involves drugs. It's going to be more back to Broken Circle."

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