I walked out of a film screening tonight for the first time in years. Usually when I walk out, I don’t bother saying anything about the film for obvious reasons. But “The Ardennes” was so aggravating that I feel obligated to warn my readers since it is Belgium’s nomination for best foreign film for the upcoming Academy Awards.
To start off, I went down to the Flanders House in the NY Times building near Times Square on the assumption that it was a documentary about the Dardennes brothers who I hold in the highest regard for their social drama focused on the plight of Belgium’s workers and underclass. To some extent this was the result of not reading the publicist’s notes carefully enough:
When looking at what other film critics have to say about the film, I was struck by what Variety’s Ben Kenigsberg’s reference to such a misunderstanding:
Pity the filmgoer who expects the Dardenne brothers when meeting the brothers of “The Ardennes,” a Belgian Christmas story in which sibling betrayal is resolved in increasingly brutal fashion. Closer to the absurdism of Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) than to some of first-time feature helmer Robin Pront’s acknowledged models (Tarantino, the Coens), the movie is slow to reveal its nastier elements, appearing for two-thirds of its running time to be merely an absorbing, low-key drama about a troubled family reuniting after one son’s release from prison.
I didn’t stick around long enough to see the film through its paces but I have little use for Tarantino or the Coen brothers nowadays. But the little use I do have for them would not be extended to Robin Pront. My impression is that any filmmaker described as Tarantino-esque nowadays is recycling material whose shelf life was exceeded a decade ago.
The story has to do with two brothers, one who works in a car wash and the other who has just been released from prison. The film telegraphs its intention early on that these are low lives that have zero likability, especially Kenny—the one who has just been released from prison—and who sports a Nazi/hipster hairdo as reported on in the Washington Post:
Kenny in “The Ardennes”
Ten minutes into the movie, Kenny is back at home with his mom who warns his brother that she won’t put up with their nonsense any more. As a clear sign that the director intends to make the character look unpalatable, he is seen in his bedroom watching violent video games at night and then masturbating. After watching this, I got myself ready to bolt for the door.
One morning, as Kenny is going out his mom asks him anxiously about his plans. With a Nazi hairdo, he could be up to anything. He answers that he is going out to rob a bank. A joke but certainly one that anticipates the film’s trajectory.
It turns out that he is looking up his old girlfriend—an ex-junkie—who he locates in her Addicts Anonymous meeting. After taking a seat, he listens to one of the group members, an African immigrant in a wheelchair, telling the others how grateful he is to be drug-free. After he finishes speaking, the counselor asks the others what they feel grateful about. Kenny raises his hand and after being called on delivers a racist tirade against the African about whether he is grateful for not living in the bush anymore, drinking filthy water and relying on handouts from the Belgians.
At that point I put on my coat and headed for the door. With all the shitty news about pinhead racists having their champion in the White House and the near victory of a truly fascist party in Austria, the last thing I needed was to watch a character like Kenny in action for another hour and a half.
The irony is that the Dardennes have exactly the opposite sensibility of the young hustler Robin Pront, who is 30 years old and knows where the action is financially in the film industry. The gansta sensibility of the Tarantino genre will always attract investors since they know that mindless violence generates ticket sales among a better-educated market niche that has no idea how degraded they become by sitting through such a film.
Both in their sixties, the Dardenne brothers, have made films for the past 38 years, all of them with a moral and political sensibility that differentiate them from just about everybody making films today. As I wrote about “The Unknown Girl”, their most recent film, it examines the moral dilemmas facing people living in Belgian society where the possibilities of acting honorably are constrained by the capitalist system.
The unknown girl referred to in the title is a seventeen-year old prostitute from Africa who buzzes to be let into the medical offices of Dr. Jenny Davin an hour after office hours have closed. Since her office is in a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Lieges with more than enough patients to make regular hours exhausting in themselves, the refusal to open the door does not seem particularly portentous.
It could not be more unlike the recycled Tarantino garbage that Pront has made. But you can guess which film has the imprimatur of Belgium’s film establishment:
Yet again, Belgium has passed over the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “The Unknown Girl,” which played in competition at Cannes and will screen at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival. Instead, Belgium is submitting rookie director Robin Pront’s “The Ardennes,” a robbery-gone-wrong thriller that debuted at last year’s TIFF in the Discovery program and has been nominated for 10 Ensor Awards (September 16). It also made the shortlist for the European Film Awards.