Belgica

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir and Boris Van Severen in Belgica - in the midst of Belgium's nightlife scene, two brothers start a bar and get swept up in its success.
"Groeningen completely sells us the world of the bar, his immersive tracking and handheld camera leading us into the melee where coke and hedonism are served straight up and the music pounds to be let into your bloodstream."

Felix van Groeningen mixed music and a drama to great effect in The Broken Circle Breakdown and returns to the well for his follow-up Belgica, which charts the trajectory of two brothers who start up a bar partnership together. That the film is based, at least in part, on two brothers whom the director's father sold a bar to in real life, explains the film's front-loaded disclaimer that any similarity to characters - "even existing ones" - is coincidental.

Elder brother Frank (Tom Vermeir) starts in the ascendancy, helping his wife Isabelle (Charlotte Vandermeersch) run a dog kennels and raise their toddler, with a second baby soon on the way. His life and stature are in contrast to younger brother Jo who looks a comparative runt of the litter with his slight build suggesting a vulnerability that is emphasised by the fact he has only one good eye as the result if a childhood fungal infection. Jo (Stef Aerts), we quickly discover, is a sweet-natured and diligent trier - a man who doesn't take advantage of a drunk woman he brings home and who has managed to get himself into the position of running local hotsptot the Belgica, even if he is having a spot of bother with drunks and blocked up toilets.

Copy picture

His bro swoops into the rescue with his ability to rally a team and remove unwanted tampons from drains and the pair begin to make big plans, bringing in an assortment of bands that make the Belgica even bigger than before - interestingly, despite the huge diversity of acts we see during the runtime, all of them were created specifically for the film, with music composed by Ghent rock outfit Soulwax. As with all the best stories about brothers, however, things begin to go wrong as Frank dives so hard and fast into the dangerously decadent lifestyle the bar Jo gets almost drowned by the backwash and, as the younger brother's relationship with his girlfriend Marieke (Helene Devos) heads into trouble, the question is whether either of the men will be able to get things back under control.

Belgica doesn't have the strong emotional undercurrent of Broken Circle, partially a result of limited screen-time for the female characters, although both of the actresses make an impact and feature in some of the film's strongest scenes. Groeningen does, however, completely sell us the world of the bar, his immersive tracking and handheld camera leading us into the melee where coke and hedonism are served straight up and the music pounds to be let into your bloodstream. His naturalistic work with Frank's toddler son is also excellent, cementing the sense of Frank's internal conflict over whether he prefers the quietness of his happy home or wildness of his workplace. Both the brothers are distinctive, believable and, most importantly, likeable despite their faults, making us almost as desperate as they are to see them come out on top.

Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2016
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Two brothers find their hedonistic bar business heading for trouble.


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