The Ardennes (2015)
Dir. Robert Pront
Scr. Pront & Jeroen Perceval
Starring: Jeroen Perceval, Veerle Baetens, Kevin Janssens,
Jan Bijvoet, Eric Godon, Peter Van den Begin, Sam Louwyck, Viviane de Muynck
Review By Greg Klymkiw
What's the deal with Belgium, anyway? Every single time I've seen a good crime picture from that country in recent years, it just plain creeps me out. Don't get me wrong. I love creepy. The creepier the better. This year at TIFF you'll no doubt see Belgium's Black, the violent gang picture inspired by "Romeo and Juliet" - infused, no less, with the overwhelmingly disturbing element of rape culture. Could it get any creepier than that?
Well, yes it can.
So far, The Ardennes is winning the TIFF 2015 sweepstakes for creepiest Belgian crime picture I've seen thus far. Not so surprisingly, it was produced by the good folks at Savage Film in Brussels who spewed forth one of the creepiest crime pictures from the land of Flemish-Walloonery, Michaël R. Roskam's 2012 Bullhead, a huge Belgian hit that was deservedly nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. It was set amidst the cow-doping underground, a criminal persuasion I'd never once considered as a viable alternative within the healthy career of pulling bad shit. The film's lead thug was addicted to injecting himself with the same weird-ass hormones and drugs being given to the cows. I mean - HELLO! - That's creepy! BUT, if you thought Bullhead was a creep-fest, you ain't seen nothing yet!
Robert Pront's The Ardennes is a seemingly straightforward tale of brothers in the crime racket; one trying to go straight, the other getting way more bent out of shape. However, aside from a few familiar tropes of the genre, there's plenty of demented sickness in this picture which leads us into some delightfully perverse and definitely original directions.
A home invasion gone wrong leaves the queerly-coiffured Kenny (Kevin Janssens) behind to take the rap. His lover Sylvie (Veerle Baetens) and older brother Dave (Jeroen Perceval) get away scot free since loyal Kenny refuses to "cooperate" with the authorities, forcing the judge to hand-down the maximum sentence of seven years.
A lot can happen over time. Kenny whiles away his hard time by connecting with cellmate Stef (Jan Bijvoet), a perpetually stoned odd-duck old hippie who carries himself with the air of a slightly demented father figure. Dave and Sylvia clean up their act. Both get "normal" jobs in a carwash and strip joint, respectively and Sylvia stops using all drugs and joins Narcotics Anonymous. When Kenny gets off earlier than expected, he does so at a time when his brother and now ex-lover are expecting a child.
Complications ensue which, frankly, are best not to relay here except to say that the film mounts ever-increasingly in tension, paranoia and, of course, violence - violence of the most horrific and often unexpected kind. The final third of the film proves to be chilling in extremis. I'll only say it all involves a car wash owner hooked on gambling, a sleazy Moroccan club owner, the now-free Stef using his scrap yard in the Ardennes to dispense with bodies and his lover, a super suave, stylish and lankily powerful transgendered strong-arm killer. (And screw it, I'll toss you a bone here: there is some lovely corpse-hacking to be tasted.)
Boasting intense performances, a suitably sleazoid mise en scène and tension to the max (all gorgeously etched by director Pront), The Ardennes takes us into familiar territory by dappling itself with decidedly unfamiliar elements. That said, there was one element during the climactic moments that I saw coming from a mile away, but it didn't detract from the horror at all and I suspect my prediction of its inevitability had more to do with the very unhealthy number of movies I've seen since birth.
Once again, Belgium looks like a very strange place in terms of its criminal milieu and clearly, like its fine predecessors, it's yet another picture that's definitely not the greatest promotional opportunity for the Belgian Tourist Board. The bright side for them, however, is that it's proof that the country boasts genuine talent behind and in front of the camera - especially when it comes to hardboiled crime pictures. Hell, if I was going to choose a life of crime, I'd certainly consider relocating to Belgium. There'd never be a dull moment.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4 Stars
The Ardennes enjoys its World Premiere in the TIFF DISCOVERY series during TIFF 2015. For tix, times, dates and venues, visit the TIFF website HERE.