by Spank The Monkey
Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them
What could be more Christmassy than Brussels? I’m talking about the European city, of course, not the green bollocky things that take up space on the dinner plate which could be more usefully occupied by turkey. The markets, the gluhwein, the 25 metre high installation in the Grand Place that was referred to in some circles as Tree 2.0: a evening stroll through the streets in December will soon leave you with a warm festive glow. (Though that’s probably mainly the gluhwein.)
But inevitably, when The Belated Birthday Girl and I spent Christmas 2012 running round the key cities of northern Belgium, we took occasional breaks from the festivities to catch some of the local movies: two in Brussels, and one in Bruges (though not In Bruges). The locations are important – Monoglot Movie Club is all about celebrating the language problems you encounter with other nations’ domestic cinema, and we ended up with three entirely different sets of problems this time.
Let’s start with the easiest one. The Broken Circle Breakdown has an English title, and there’s quite a bit of English to be heard on its soundtrack. That’s because its protagonists are part of the country music scene in Ghent, which is inevitably based around cover versions of American songs. We first meet Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) in 2006, at their lowest ebb as their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) begins treatment for cancer. The timeline slips backwards and forwards from that starting point, going back to their initial meeting at the turn of the century, when she was a tattoo artist with a wild streak and he was the banjo player in a bluegrass band. It’s love at first sight, but how much longer can it last? Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by?
The story is punctuated by performances from the band, which subsequently expands to include Elise on vocals. It’s the sort of device you’d imagine would be used to separate the scenes in a stage play, and it turns out that this is precisely how The Broken Circle Breakdown started, in a successful touring version co-written by and starring Heldenbergh. The opening-out process has been fairly seamlessly done by director Felix van Groeningen and co-writer Carl Roos: you have to assume that the non-linear aspects of the storytelling are their main contribution to the film. However, one of the main problems is that every major plot point is telegraphed way in advance in either flashbacks or flashforwards – which is nice for those of us having trouble understanding the dialogue, but shows a reluctance to just let things happen.
The other problem with the story is that in the cold light of day, it’s as manipulatively sentimental as, well, a bad country song. When your film opens with a six-year-old girl going into chemotherapy, it’s safe to predict that things won’t get much better from there. And the manipulation’s quite blatant at times, going as far as the period setting, without which you wouldn’t have the news event that pushes the couple to breaking point. I suspect that without the language barrier, the emotional buttonpushing would seem even more gratuitous. But with that barrier, there’s still a lot to like: bravely committed performances from the two leads, and plenty of enjoyable tunes.
In Brussels, at least, the assumption has to be made that your audience could be either French- or Dutch-speaking, so films have to be subtitled accordingly. The Broken Circle Breakdown’s mix of Dutch dialogue and French subtitles means that with basic O Level French, you’ve got a reasonable chance of picking up all the key dialogue points from one or the other. Does it work the other way round? Not quite, as we found when we spent the evening of Christmas Day in a packed multiplex watching an actual French film with Dutch subs. (Cinemas being open on Christmas Day is one of those bits of European sophistication that never fails to delight me.)
And make no mistake, this one’s a very French film. It appears that for international release, De l’Autre Côté du Périph is going to be called On The Other Side Of The Freeway, thus sadly losing the very Parisian reference in its title. But an international release is very much on the cards thanks to lead actor Omar Sy, recently voted the most popular man in France by Le Journal du Dimanche. His role in The Intouchables made him a star, and Périph has the feeling of a vehicle hastily constructed around a suddenly hot property.
Sy plays Ousmane Diakhité, a cop working the rougher areas on the outskirts of Paris. When a rich woman’s corpse unexpectedly turns up on his beat, he’s forced to join up with city police captain François Monge (Laurent Lafitte) to investigate suspects in the single-digit arrondissements. This all seems so far to be a little bit Beverly Hills Cop, but it still takes you by surprise when Diakhité’s phone turns out to have Axel F as its ringtone. In a neat bit of observation, Monge reveals at one point that his cinema role model is Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Professionel, while Diakhité has to look outside France in order to find his equivalent.
A French film with Dutch subtitles turns out to be a slightly trickier concept to get your head around. But underneath its tentative handling of racial issues, Périph is a standard piece of action-comedy genre filmmaking, and the plot beats fall pretty much exactly where you’d expect them to. And I’ve always said that if a film has a sufficiently familiar structure, you can still enjoy it without ever understanding the details of, say, why that woman was killed at the start. The relationship between the two leads is played just about right – Sy’s charm lights up the screen whenever he’s within five yards of a woman, and Lafitte manages to balance Monge’s innate dickishness, misogyny and casual racism without going the full Ricky Gervais. (Who would love that character’s surname, wouldn’t he?)
It’s interesting to note that of the three films we saw over Christmas, it’s the foreign French one that seemed to be the big multiplex hit, while the two local Dutch-language productions were playing arthouses. This doesn’t appear to be just a language issue, as that’s still the case when you move out from Brussels into the Dutch-speaking parts of Flanders, in cities like Bruges and Ghent. Brasserie Romantiek straddles those two cities, in that we saw it in the first and it’s set in the second – there may be a particular aesthetic or financial reason why Ghent is a popular moviemaking location right now, but I’m afraid I haven’t found it out yet.
Anyway, for Brasserie we’ve got Dutch language and no subtitles, which means there aren’t written cues to help us through some of the more complex bits of dialogue. But again, we’re dealing with a tightly-formatted plot, in this case a romcom set inside a restaurant during a single evening sitting. Unlike its Ghent neighbour Broken Circle Breakdown, it’s surprising that this film isn’t based on a stage play, given that the vast majority of its action takes place in two locations – the restaurant and its kitchen.
Inevitably, there are amorous complications taking place on both sides of the kitchen door. There’s an older couple who appear to be on the verge of collapse: a young woman comfort-eating in the wake of the loss of a partner: a nerdy bloke meeting up with a blind date who’s way out of his league. And holding it all together is restaurant boss Pascaline (Sara de Roo), who keeps the whole operation running smoothly… until the unexpected arrival of old flame Frank (Koen de Bouw), with the offer of a new life in Buenos Aires. (That’s the most unrealistic aspect of the whole film, actually. We tried visiting a couple of the Ghent restaurants credited for research – De 3 Biggetjes and Bij den Wijzen en den Zot – and can tell you for a fact that if you try going there without a reservation, they’ll laugh in your face.)
Again, it’s a question of anticipating the beats, not caring too much about the details, and revelling in the predictability of it all rather than getting grumpy about it. The characters are all entertaining in their own right, and their various couplings and uncouplings are enjoyable enough to watch, even if you can’t always work out why they’re happening. (Having said that, the blind date scenario is played broadly enough to work just fine in any language.) I suspect that if I knew what was being said, I’d have got bored with Brasserie Romantiek very quickly: but I didn’t, so I didn’t. Maybe all modern romcoms should be done like this.
Is this a representative snapshot of Belgian cinema at the end of 2012? Probably not. It should be pointed out that during Christmas week, the highest-grossing domestic film in Belgium was none of the above, but K3 Bengeltjes, which from the trailer appears to feature a popular girl band with magically expanding noses and arses. Until Mostly Film starts paying me to do this, you’re on your own with that one.
Spank The Monkey is currently trying to repair the damage caused by nine days worth of exposure to Belgian waffles and beer.