We discuss the best of Belgium’s cult films and classic movies to emerge from Belgian cinema.
The success of low budget indie flick Man Bites Dog in the 90s put Belgian cinema on the map. Now the abundance of independent classic movies in Belgium from directors such as the Dardenne brothers and Erik Van Looy are putting the spotlight on less widely known and older Belgian classics like Brussels by Night, while also revealing the abiding strength of the Belgian film scene.
Directed by Belgium’s premiere filmmaking pair Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, L’Enfant was the last Belgian film to win the prestigious Palme D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the second won by the two brothers. Young couple Sonia (Déborah François) and Bruno (Jérémie Renier) have a difficult life, and get by surviving on state hand outs and the measly earnings from Bruno’s criminal activities. After Sonia gives birth to a son, Bruno commits the unthinkable and sells their child to a black market adoption ring. Some of the grittiest social realism of recent memory, this is the brother’s Dardenne at their lugubrious best.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
The film that almost single headedly ignited the Belgian film industry’s international recognition and a pioneer of the found footage genre, Man Bites Dog is a darkly comic mockumentary which champions the perseverance of originality and DIY filmmaking. The story follows a documentary film crew as they shadow magnetic serial killer Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde) for a piece they are producing, but when the rampage begins what role will they play in the carnage? Shot entirely in black and white, made on a shoestring budget, and put together by four student filmmakers, Man Bites Dog is as graphic as it is dark. Be warned, not for the faint of heart.
Ben X (2007)
Adapted from the novel Nothing Was All He Said, author Nic Balthazar also decided to try his hand at directing this harrowing tale. An emotional story of teen suicide, depression and mental illness, Ben (Greg Timmermans), who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, escapes the bullies and tortures of his young adolescence by immersing himself in the fantasy realms of online gaming. Although Ben is himself invested in the fairytale, there’s nothing superficial here when considering the film was inspired by true events.
The Alzheimer Case (2003)
Continuing Belgium’s fascination with mass murderers, The Alzheimer Case (which had the alternative title of The Memory of a Killer) directed by Erik Van Looy and based on the novel by Jef Geeraerts, turns the lens on Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir) a retired hit man persuaded to take one last job despite recently developing Alzheimer’s. After refusing to assassinate one of the targets and uncovering his employer’s hidden intentions, he vows to take revenge but with his deteriorating condition, and with both the police and trigger-finger goons on his trail, can he complete his trial of retribution? Sleek, visceral, and an unmistakable cult classic, a Hollywood remake is inevitably on the cards.
Brussels by Night (1983)
Max (François Beukelaers), a middle aged man devoid of purpose or passion, drowns his sorrows in the dank bars and brooding alleyways of Brussels. Things start to look up after meeting and befriending a group of like-minded individuals on one of his wanderings. Over time however tensions build and relationships flare to a catastrophic climax. With neon 1980s Brussels as a perfect backdrop, the wonderfully grainy cinematography capturing the nation’s capital perfectly complements the atmosphere of the film. A wonderful slice of Belgian culture, Brussels by Night is the hidden gem in the dark.
Le Fils (2002)
Another film on the list from the hard hitting Dardenne brothers, Les Fils places the focus on Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) an experienced carpenter who works at a vocational training school in Liège. After turning down the apprenticeship of a young boy (Morgan Marinne), Olivier begins to follow him, clearly affected by a previous encounter only he is aware of, and his motives begin to unravel and a shocking truth is uncovered. Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne are in a class of their own with this generous helping of starkly devastating social realism.
Any Way the Wind Blows (2003)
From the mind of dEUS’s very own front man Tom Barman, Anyway the Wind Blows encounters eight very different Antwerp locals, all helplessly stuck in lives they wish they didn’t have. Through circumstance and coincidence each individual is brought together at the same soiree one hot and humid night during the month of June. Written, directed, and with a soundtrack composed by Barman, the film is almost an extension of his own personality. It’s loud, raw, raucous, and a little bit crazy. Attracting both fans of the band and cinephiles, Barman should be given credit for his ambition with this stylish and lively feature debut.
The most successful Flemish film ever at the Belgian box office as of 2012, the loft in question is one that a group of five friends all rent out to meet their respective concubines. When the unknown corpse of a woman is found in the apartment, suspicion, rivalries, and lies begin to purge the group of all trust. With an all-star cast of Belgian actors including Jan Decleir, Veerle Baetens, and Matthaias Schoenaerts, this classic ‘who done it’ thriller is incredibly intelligent and superbly fleshed out both in terms of plot and character development. Another feather in Erik Van Looy’s directorial cap, Loft deserves international recognition as well as its huge appreciation on home soil.
La Vie sexuelle des Belges 1950–1978 (1994)
Directed by the eccentric and enigmatic anarchist Jan Bucquoy, this striking satire on Belgian provincialism, which translates as The Sex Life of the Belgians was a huge success upon its point of release and is still entertaining today. A mix of the baroque and the comically farcical, Jean Henri Compère (Jan Bucquoy) narrates his sexual history up to the age of 28 with lurid and vivid detail. Filled with flagrant self-mockery and dead pan humour, it’s easy to spot autobiographical elements but much harder to work out their investment in the truth. A tongue in cheek flick with mischief and misbehaviour in abundance The Sex Life of the Belgians is a must see jigsaw piece in the Belgian cult puzzle.
Infamous for Jean Claude Van Damme’s heartbreakingly honest semi-fictionalised portrayal of himself, JCVD directed by Mabrouk El Mechri became an instant cult classic. The ‘Muscles from Brussels’, having seen better days, returns to his home suburb in the capital. With his career and family life in rapid decline, things are made immeasurably worse when he gets embroiled in the middle of a post office stick up. Probably one of the most recognised Belgian celebrities, Van Damme produces a particularly human and scathing account of past regrets and misdeeds in a six minute monologue in which he references previous drugs abuse and the frivolousness of his old lifestyle.