As far as Coen brothers wannabes go, Robin Pront’s feature debut – The Ardennes – does fine to cut desolate Belgian poverty with tense, character-driven grime. Is it perfect? Hardly – the film hurdles towards inevitability like a junker with cut brakes. Does Pront establish a brotherly conflict birthed from love-triangle consequences? Oddly enough yes, even with all the drag queen, cocaine and pancake breakfasts thrown in. Yes. Drag queen, cocaine and pancake breakfasts – be entertained by some crazy Belgian bastards whose criminal pasts make for deathly complicated futures. Hope you like your Eurotrash with a side of bass-thumping techno and an infinite supply of cold beers…
Kevin Janssens and Jeroen Perceval star as two outlaw brothers, Kenny (Janssens) and Dave (Perceval), who live a sinful life – until Kenny gets pinched during an unfortunate home invasion. While Kenny serves four years hard time, Dave decides to clean up his act and quits drinking. He leads a clean, happy life with the help of his also-newly-sober girlfriend, Sylvie (Veerle Baetens), who happened to be dating Kenny before – and briefly during – his prison stint. You see where issues might arise? Yeah, right when Kenny gets released from prison and Dave can’t bring himself to confess his relationship. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of secrets between Sylvie, Dave and Kenny, with the latter one displaying his still-fiery aggression when others get too close to his waitress ex-girlfriend. Can Dave make good with his brother while banging his ex? Or will Kenny do something stupid enough to ruin everything?
Pront starts things off with the final moments of Dave’s above-mentioned escape, as he hops in a getaway vehicle without Kenny. We’re quickly taken to a prison cell, where Kenny is wished luck by the guards, but that’s it on backstory – then it’s a fast-forward to Sylvie’s two-year sobriety token ceremony, and her established affection towards Dave. Lines are kept blurry between the brothers so that Pront can slowly wring out the murky waters of their past. Love is not lost between the two (without Kenny knowing about Sylvie, that is), but Kenny still shows an unpredictable tenacity that always keeps loyalties in question. Dave’s choice to conceal obvious trigger points from his brother are well-warranted, as their chemistry trades nervous smiles and suspect glances with increasingly toxic tension.
Admittedly, The Ardennes does take a hot second to rev its engines. At the onset, family dynamics and beer-chugging bravado are what welcome Kenny home. He expects life to have waited for his release and struggles to cope with Sylvie’s proclaimed disinterest. She can not longer look at the man who personifies every bad choice she ever made, as Kenny continues to swill alcohol and provoke confrontation just like old times. Dave tries to vouch for Kenny, but ends up jobless along with his deadbeat brother. These are the monotone motions that lead to a much more searing excursion into the wooded Ardennes, where Pront throws every conflict into the air just to see where they might land.
I rather like the dense air between Janssens and Perceval, yet it’s Jan Bijvoet’s introduction as Kenny’s former prison bunkmate – Stef – that marks the film’s crescendo upwards. He lives amongst the Ardennes woodlands, where Dave and Kenny spent many happier, simpler years as children. This tags the Belgian landmark as a nostalgic safe haven for the boys (happy memories to think back on), but instead, they’re about to evoke the region’s WWII history of bloodshed and violence (symbolic and representative in more than one way).
This is where all that cocaine and pancake talk comes in, once Stef’s glamorous lover chauffeurs the brothers to his boy-toy’s trailer-park-trash abode. Kenny is the one who asks for help, after a body ends up in his trunk, and Stef very much makes the most of his otherwise unsavory task. Butcher equipment comes out, his thoughts on woman paint a curious picture and Pront truly indulges in more wackadoo sensibilities that don’t lack a synth-rock bite. Once Dave and Kenny step foot into the Ardennes, war is beckoned. The sides may not shock you, but a soul-ripping end surely drives home the chilling horrors that Pront sets out to deliver.
The Ardennes may be saturated in dark blues and snow-covered blankness, but it burns with bright fury as Robin Pront inches closer to his film’s inevitable breaking point. Once it snaps, Belgian wits are traded for barbed attacks, until we – along with most characters – are left withering in a pile of hurt. Leading performances are all chiseled furiously from hardened stone – even Veerle Baetens’ puppy-loving Sylvie – as impoverished decisions lead to humanistic ruination. It’s not the most intense foreign thriller, but there’s certainly enough crazy-eyed chaos to make Pront an instant must-watch filmmaker – debuts this good will do that.
Once Robin Pront's The Ardennes plows through necessary backstory, it becomes a chilling Belgian thriller worth one gut-punch of an ending.