A preamble accompanies “Belgica” warning that the people and places described in the film are fictitious. Such a warning may seem odd for a film that doesn’t bear the seriousness of a true crime story, yet it’s oddly fitting since the night club referred to in the title is something that has about as much a right to exist in the reality of its character as it does for the audience watching the latest from writer/director Felix van Groeningen.
The kind of mythical, utopian hotspot where revelers dance into the morning light and beer and other spirits flow from on high, Belgica is the dream of the Canoot brothers, so much so that their vision is never actually verbally articulated by the younger Jo (Stef Aerts), who looks to upgrade his quaint current bar and stage to a three-story wonderland. When his brusque brother Frank (Tom Vermeir), seemingly run his course with blue collar work, comes calling in search of a new job, just as their father, largely absent in their lives, is said to be living out his final days, the two decide to partner on the project after Frank is able to pull in Davey Coppens, a regionally renowned singer to appear at the smaller club.
Van Groeningen wastes little time on the set-up in order to leave as much as possible for the performances, so that the film, much like the director’s “Broken Circle Breakdown” before it, is as much a hootenanny as it is anything else. Thanks to a group of dedicated free spirits who rally around building the brothers’ utopia, Belgica rises quickly and the energy is infectious. An audience can get lost in the swirl of fluorescent lights and the slinky gyration of flesh at every corner of the club, and the brothers certainly do, indulging in the decadence that they’ve created before it ultimately tears them apart.
“Belgica” follows a familiar template in this regard, though the fact you know the good times will end well before the characters do is mitigated by van Groeningen’s deft touches throughout the film in taking care to distinguish the brothers from one another and creating a sense that anything can happen. The film teases out a family history that adds resonance to Jo and Frank’s differences – the former being far more responsible than the latter, an extension of who they were as children – and while there’s a heavier hand in conveying the fallout, which involves shattered plates and vicious beatdowns, it’s consistent with the rowdy spirit that came before it. Nothing’s done in half-measures and van Groeningen’s continuing interest in transgressive subcultures and the power of love to both galvanize and destroy also pay dividends, with the director’s healthy respect for both making nothing ever feel too big for the story he’s created.
“Belgica” may not have the same tenderness that made van Groeningen’s last film such a global sensation, but it does speak a universal language in terms of fun, playing out as a party thrown by someone not worried about tomorrow. In asking whether that someone should be, the writer/director also finds a pretty intriguing drama.
“Belgica” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Sundance Film Festival three more times on January 22nd at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre at 9 pm, January 27th at the Library Center Theatre at 11:59 pm and January 29th at Prospector Square Theatre at 5:15 pm.