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Saturday, March 4, 2017
Belgian director Robin Proust credits Martin Scorcese and David Fincher among his artistic influences, and after watching his feature writing/directing debut THE ARDENNES (2015), it's easy to see why.
I see mostly the Fincher of SE7EN in Proust's dark, gritty visual style and in the visceral, hard-hitting effect he achieves. By the time it was over, I felt as though I'd been beaten and dragged through the mud in the stinging cold rain just like the two main characters, brothers Dave (Jeroen Perceval, BULLHEAD) and Kenny (Kevin Janssens).
Both are involved in a botched home robbery at the beginning, and while Dave gets away, Kenny goes to prison for four years. In that time, Kenny's girlfriend Sylvie (Veerle Baetens) realizes that he's the cause of all her miseries and ends up falling in love with Dave.
Four years later, Dave and Sylvie are expecting a child and dreading the effect this potentially incendiary news will have on a newly-released Kenny. Their fears, we discover, are well-founded, as the volatile Kenny's incarceration has only made him more jealous, more wildly unpredictable, and, worst of all, more prone to sudden, irrational violence.
Proust has an economical style and an artist's eye as director--as well as a terrific cast to work with--establishing a bleak world in which there seems no way out through either honest labor or, in Sylvie's case, well-intentioned group therapy (Kenny attends a session unannounced and, unsurprisingly, disrupts and intimidates).
The first half of the movie slowly, methodically builds tension and dread, with Dave and Sylvie's secret hanging like the sword of Damocles over every scene (Kenny gets a clue to their relationship early on which we're invited to pick up on ourselves).
We also fear a variety of other conflicts Kenny stokes with everyone from Dave's abrasive boss, who reluctantly hires him at Dave's urging and quickly regrets it, to the Moroccan club owner where Sylvie works (when Kenny sees him touching her from across the crowded dance floor, we know there will be hell to pay).
Then, after Proust and co-writer Perceval are done slowly lulling us into a very valid sense of dread, the dam breaks and suddenly we, along with Kenny and Dave and a dead body that's in Dave's trunk for some reason, are swept away into the dark heart of the Ardennes forest where dead bodies go to disappear and sometimes the people who bring them there do too.
Proust's Scorcese influence gets a workout here when Kenny's way-creepy former cellmate Stef (Jan Bijvoet) and Stef's hulking transvestite boyfriend Joyce (Sam Louwyck) show up just to make things scarier and more violent in all sorts of ways.
I'm loathe to reveal any more, except to say that from here on in, "sudden death" isn't just a sports term. The film saves a wicked little twist to pull on us just when we least expect it, paving the way for a mud-and-blood-splattered finale in which not everyone lives happily ever after.
The DVD from Film Movement is in 2.40:1 widescreen with both 5.1 and 2.0 stereo sound. Language is Flemish and French with English subtitles. In addition to a commentary track with director Proust and actor Kevin Janssens ("Kenny"), extras consist of a making-of featurette, a gritty and violent 15-minute short by Proust entitled "Injury Time", an interview with Proust and Janssens, and trailers for this and other Film Movement releases.
THE ARDENNES isn't the ideal film to watch if you're trying to cultivate a happy mood. Not that it's as downbeat and depressing as, say, EDEN LAKE--nowhere near it--because as disheartening as it might be, it's still just so keenly clever and mischievously malicious that I actually felt strangely elated at the end, and, compared to these poor slobs, a little happier with my own lot in life.
Buy it at Amazon.com