In “Belgica,” co-writer/director Felix van Groeningen (“The Broken Circle Breakdown“) focuses on the chaotic pulse of a successful bar/nightclub, and on the character clashes and personal failures that drive the rise and fall of a “scene.” The effect is significantly less compelling than in his last film, however. The best facets of “Belgica” are a captivating sense of place and an intriguing and unpredictable soundtrack, as too-familiar characters and situations swirl through the rooms of the ever-expanding club.
Brothers Jo and Frank run the titular bar — well, Jo opens Belgica as little more than a smelly neighborhood watering hole known for an omnipresent bunch of locals and a perpetually overflowing toilet. Frank gets wind of Jo’s new gig and, unsatisfied with his own job and the sluggish pace of domestic living with his wife and child, offers to help run the place.
Soon Jo and Frank are expanding the bar into neighboring space to create a multipurpose bar and music venue. The venue is a big hit, thanks in no small part to the wide variety of music acts that take the stage. An early audience draw for Belgica is the fashionable lead singer of a local rock back called The Shitz, but soon a parade of interesting musical artists leads patrons to the bar like a swarm of pied pipers.
In one scene, a procession carrying drums and horns winds through the club, up to the balconies, where the players perform alongside patrons and other musicians. In another, a woman in a bald cap, part of a chainmail-clad trio, crowd surfs as she sings. Three drummers that look like a “Suspiria” tribute band play a heavy, jerky rhythm. The music in “Belgica” isn’t always great, but it is consistently surprising — far more so than the actions of any character.
Cinematographer Ruben Impens, who also shot “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” gives the film a unique visual identity, using hard spotlights and washes of many colors for interiors while favoring wan grey atmospheres when outside. The locations are an inside-out reflection of the characters — the bar capturing the tumultuous life of Jo, Frank, and the people around them as exteriors represent the disaffection they struggle against.
Problems begin for Belgica — both the bar and the movie — with Jo and Frank themselves. Frank declares the bar to be “your favorite den of depravity,” and he certainly works to make that true, with hedonistic dives into drugs, random sex, and violence fueled by anger and self-loathing, and amplified by a plethora of substances.
Neither character is particularly well-drawn, even though actors Stef Aerts and Tom Vermeir do their utmost to spark each man to life. Aerts emphasizes the quiet and decisive aspects of the one-eyed Jo, whose determined steps through life contrast both the dissolute Frank and their absent father.
As Frank, Vermeir projects the kind of energy we’ve seen in performances from Bryan Cranston and Kevin Bacon, but the script, by van Groeningen and Arne Sierens, never pushes Frank into any dramatically viable territory. Five minutes after he’s first on screen the entire trajectory of Frank’s path through the film will be evident. Tragedy can be predictable without undermining drama, and “Belgica” certainly has the arc of a tragic combination of drugs, sex, and music. But Frank’s actions are a by-the-numbers account of a burnout. He’s never interesting, much less fascinating.
The weird parade of music fans, revelers, parasites, drug enthusiasts and violent drunks that visit the club do occasionally promise to develop some intrigue. From scene to scene, however, Frank’s dumb, self-serving behavior, and Jo’s reluctance to properly deal with it, follows such a familiar path that any edge is blunted. “Belgica” is just like its characters, unwilling to shake a fascination with superficial pleasures to dive into any significant interactions.
Disappointingly after “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” none of the women who feature in the film, including Hélène De Vos, Anjana Dierckx, and Sara De Bosschere get any significant attention, and the problems they have to deal with are rendered with shallow empathy.
There’s a sense that “Belgica” hopes to be a rambunctiously entertaining slice of club life and business, and Felix van Groeningen does capture many of the details of running a venue. With so many characters making predictably bad choices, it very quickly becomes a slog, and an unrewarding one at that. If this vision of a club looks like your dream party palace, “Belgica” may well seem far more bewitching, at least for a spell, but even then the glitter will fade well before the end. [C-]