Blood runs deep in The Ardennes. Here we have a fraternal tale of resentment and revenge which shifts gears from brutalist kitchen sink drama in Antwerp’s bleak, unforgiving suburbs to something of wholly demonic, biblical proportions in latter stages that take place under wintry skies, isolated in the film’s titular forest. Robin Pront’s debut may not present a picture-postcard marketing opportunity to the local tourist board and certainly won’t entice anyone to the area but the director’s first feature has sufficiently impressed to be selected as Belgium’s Foreign Language candidate at this year’s Oscars.
The Ardennes flies the flag of Flanders with gritted teeth, deadened stares and short tempers, fuelled by rage and a thumping trance score which propels its players towards calamity. It is a film of tremendous failures, minor victories and the faintest glimmer of redemption that opens with disparate pieces of a narrative puzzle that swiftly align: a botched burglary, a man condemned to seven years imprisonment, his girlfriend attending an addict’s support group and another man keeping himself in shape, staying off the booze and holding down a steady job at a carwash. The former man, Kenny (Kevin Janssens), is released on parole after four years, and the latter, his younger brother Dave (Jeroen Perceval – who co-wrote the script with Pront), collects him from jail.
A distant reflection of the brothers’ tentative embrace in a wing mirror is an early indicator that they have lost, and may never regain, the trust and closeness they once shared. But why? Sylvie (Veerle Baetens), strung out but trying to make a go of it, is the third jagged point to this uncomfortable triangle and is a thorn in the side of all concerned and the catalyst for all that ensues. Stealing your brother’s girl when he’s serving time for a crime you committed together is a big no-no by any reckoning, but what if you’re the quiet, caring, considerate younger brother saving a woman from the big bad wolf? Dave and Sylvie make great pains to break this secret at the right moment to Kenny whose fuse is as short as the shaved sides of his head.
The proverbial cat staying in the bag is key to the familial melodrama which constitutes the film’s first half and is perhaps not enough to sustain us but the thick layer of grime which coats all interiors and dank, colourless exteriors, coupled with sleet and rain for at least three quarters of the run time, create an adequately foreboding, oppressive atmosphere. It is in the wake of a crime of passion that The Ardennes lurches into very dark and dangerous territory and the boys hitting the road for the woods where a meeting with Kenny’s former cellmate (Embrace of the Serpent‘s Jan Bijvoet) ensures they are in for a big, bold, bloody surprise. This is a punchy and promising debut from Pront.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens