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Last update on October 31, 2019

Get a little closer to understanding Belgian culture through cinema. Here are three top films from Belgium.

The Sexual Life of the Belgians

Directed by: Jan Bucquoy
Starring: Jean Henri Compère, Noe Franc, Isabelle Legros and Sophie Shneider.

‘Rites of passage’ films are always popular in Hollywood but few movies from across the Atlantic present the gloomy, bittersweet sensitivity of Bucquoy’s 1996 offering. The film charts the childhood, adolescence and progression to a type of adulthood of a rather morose Wallonian from Harelbek.

Those of us who grew up in the 50s know something about post-war drabness, but the picture painted here of the Belgian experience is both sobering and hilarious. Our hero runs the full gamut of misery and disappointment as he crawls out from under the dominance of his mother. Seemingly doomed to spend the rest of his life in the factory accounting room where his father worked before him, he somehow manages to escape to Brussels to become a writer.

Now, if was this an American film, things might look up for our young man. Indeed, sexual and emotional experiences follow. But in a curiously Belgian way, it seems nothing is quite fully consummated. Marriage fails to provide an answer and the great novel remains unwritten, with the would-be author earning his living from writing for pornographic magazines.

Don’t let this put you off this film. It has a succession of gloriously tender and funny scenes, with really excellent performances running throughout it. A ‘feel good’ movie it most definitely is not, but you can still come away from it feeling as if you have another piece of the jigsaw that makes up the Belgian psyche.

You should be able to find The Sexual Life of the Belgians with English subtitles.

Man Bites Dog (C’est arivée pres du chez vous)

Directed by: Remy Belvaux
Starring: Andre Bonzei and Benoit Poelvoorde.

This movie caused a bit of a storm when it came out; during one of its screenings, it even prompted walkouts at the ICA cinema in London. Possibly one of the most tasteless and nasty films, it is also (regrettably) one of the funniest.

Viewing the film in Belgium is an unsettling experience as the setting is a very recognisable Brussels. Shot exclusively in black-and-white cinema verité style, Man Bites Dog is a black comedy that ruthlessly mocks the documentary medium.

Its hero (and co-director) is Benoit, a petit-bourgois Belgian opinionated to the point of gloriously absurd pretension. The film is cut together from footage shot by a camera crew making a documentary on Benoit’s occupation – killing for fun and profit. They film him as he goes about his daily business, the random execution of a postman, old ladies and small children – while he explains the details of submerging corpses, criticises attempts at urban renewal and goes to art gallery openings.

Why the brutalities so graphically depicted should become so funny and why we should actually care about the monstrous central character is a puzzle. Perhaps we as the audience become as complicit in the murders as the film crew documenting Benoit’s activities (who end up taking part in his atrocities and even funding them).

This very particular take on Belgian life can be a disturbing film, but for a sideways look at your adopted home it should definitely be seen, even if you might want to leave the country directly afterwards.

Everybody Famous!

Directed by: Dominique Deruddere
Starring: Eva Van der Gucht and Josse De Pauw.

Dominique Deruddere hit the Hollywood headlines when his latest film Ledereen Beroemd! (Everybody Famous!) was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in the 2003 Academy Awards.

Born in Turnhout in 1957, Deruddere was raised in Brussels and made his first short film in 1975. Since then he’s gone on to make more full-length features, many being acknowledged as works of substance and promise, but with many critics claiming he misses the mark. Everybody Famous! seems set to change that view.

The film hits home with its tale of everyday working-class folk, the sort of small-budget, big acting film that audiences love in the wake of The Full Monty and Billy Elliot. The film is a painfully funny – yet harsh – look at today’s television society and how trashy money can fuel celebrity and greed.

Sulky and lumpish at 17-years-old, Marva (Eva Van der Gucht) is a regular at singing competitions which she always loses. Her father Jean (Josse De Pauw), is determined that she will become a success and when he is made redundant, he embarks on a determined path to open doors for her. His main scheme, to launch Marva’s career and solve his own financial problems, is to kidnap Debbie (Thekla Reuten), the number one singer in the country. To tell more would give too much away, but the drama that follows is horribly plausible.

Deruddere, who also wrote and co-produced the film, has strong feelings on the subject: “You see parents who are willing to do anything, and I mean anything, to get their children to act or to sing. Today, people worship television … fame and money are everything. Becoming a star! That’s all that counts for many people today. Everybody famous! is about those kind of people and about the blind ambition they nourish.”

Josse de Pauw won Best Belgian Actor at the Flanders International Film Festival for his role as Jean. It also played at the Venice Film Festival, among others, and interest mounts in Derruder’s idiosyncratic story.