A cult movie of the 90s, C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Rémy Belvaux, 1992) is probably the most striking example of the black humor and brutality that pervades Belgian cinema. The fake documentary about a serial killer draws inspiration from a Belgian TV show of a new genre that appeared on the national broadcast channel RTBF in the mid 1980s. The innovative show, Strip-Tease, “the show that undresses you”, depicted the everyday intimacy of its subjects without any commentary, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. During its 17 years of existence, the multiple award-winning documentary series regularly stirred debate by revealing a society in turn pathetic, cruel, and deranged. Strip-Tease is not an isolated phenomenon in the Belgian cinematic landscape, the show is rooted in the documentary tradition of Henri Storck.
C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog), by Rémy Belvaux, 1992
Misère au Borinage by Henri Storck and Joris Ivens, 1933
Pour vos beaux yeux (For Your Beautiful Eyes), by Henri Storck, 1929
From the 1930s on, the filmmaker’s predilection for social issues had a lasting impact on the history of Belgian cinema. The Dardenne brothers are obviously Henri Storck’s most illustrious heirs – they even paid him a public tribute in Cannes when awarded the Palme d’Or for their film Rosetta (1999). In just seven films, including two Palmes d’Or, the brothers from the Liège/Luik region have become the masters of social and realistic cinema, exploring themes such as illegal immigration, unemployment, and exploitation. Henri Storck is also present, this time as an actor, in Chantal Akerman‘s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The film depicts the meticulous and alienating schedule of a young widowed mother who prostitutes herself to supplement her income. The more than three-hour long movie focuses on actions deemed insignificant, such as peeling potatoes, and is recorded in real time. These scenes function in fact like a time bomb: Jeanne, disturbed by a simple shift in her schedule, kills one of her customers with a pair of scissors.
Trailer Rosetta, by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1999
Trailer L’Enfant (The Child), by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2005
The potato peeling scene from Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975
Monstrosity and banality appear again and again as two sides of the same reality which Belgian cinema strives to show. As for human perversity, Strass (Vincent Lannoo, 2002) is probably the most shocking example after C’est arrivé près de chez vous. The only Belgian movie made in compliance with Lars von Trier‘s Dogme95 manifesto portrays a despicable theater teacher, imbued with vulgarity and violence. In the burlesque vein, the characters of Camping Cosmos (Jan Bucquoy, 1996), from porn actress Lolo Ferrari to singer Arno, are just as politically incorrect. More recently, Ex-Drummer (Koen Mortier, 2007) tells the raw story of three losers united by their respective handicap to form a heavy metal band. If more poetic universes exist (remember the dancing flowers in the social housing of Toto le Héros, Jaco Van Dormael, 1991) attachment to marginal subjects remains a constant. Through this apparent harshness, signs of hope also arise, such as in Les Convoyeurs Attendent (Benoît Mariage, 1999) which ends with the dancing celebration of the new year 2000. In the end, the lesson of Belgian cinema might be : despite the “Helaasheid der dingen” (to borrow the title of young filmmaker Felix van Groeningen‘s latest masterpiece), chances of success still exist.
Strass by Vincent Lannoo, 2002
Camping Cosmos by Jan Bucquoy, 1996
Ex Drummer by Koen Mortier, 2007
De Helaasheid der dingen (The Misfortunates) by Felix van Groeningen, 2009