Revelatory film centre Cinea’s Bart Versteirt selects 8 Belgian movies

With their Summer Film School just around the corner – July 9 to 15 at Antwerp’s Cinema Zuid –, Cinea coordinator Bart Versteirt presents his favourite Belgian movies, from the early silent days to the end of the 20th Century. This historical scope is not surprising, seeing that Cinea has been spreading the knowledge of film history and film styles since its creation in 1994, with events such as the Summer Film School or through their online magazine Photogénie. Or, as they like to say: filmmakers have thousands of secrets – Cinea lets you in on them.

Maudite soit la guerre – Alfred Machin – 1913

Since we as an organisation focus on the history of film, there was no way I could leave out this early silent feature by the French progenitor of Belgian cinema, Alfred Machin. This remarkable pacifist war film is concerned with a fictional conflict in a fictionalised Europe, which uncannily resembles the First World War – the film was released just months before the Great War erupted! It features an amazing tinted colour scheme, selectively applied through the stencil process, which once again can be enjoyed in all its polychromatic splendour, thanks to painstaking restoration work by Cinematek and Eye Film Institute. The details of colour amidst the greys, black and white make the images appear paradoxically more “unreal”– of another time as well as a part of a clearly constructed, created reality. The colours are so dominantly beautiful that upon first viewing, it can shift the focus away from the touching heart of the story and the elegant staging.

Histoire de détective – Charles Dekeukeleire – 1929

Dziga Vertov wasn’t the only Man With a Movie Camera at the end of the 1920s, using it to explore the possibilities of cinema. The concept found in Charles Dekeukeleire’s Histoire de detective is that we get to see found scraps of footage shot by a private detective (referred to simply as T) investigating the case of a supposedly unfaithful husband, shadowing him on a very Belgian road trip from Brussels to Luxembourg via Ostend and Bruges. This narrative is only a pretext for playing with the typographically adventurous intertitles through which this silent film is told. Like Vertov’s canonical film, Histoire de détective shares an interest in the cinematographic process – there’s plenty of cameras shots, processed film, projectors and editing apparel – as well as some of its penchant for expressive framing (think crazy angles). Yet in comparison to Vertov, it’s more freely associative and impressionistic; more concerned with what images are able to suggest than with exploring all formal possibilities of editing. It’s also much more humouristic – which was apparently lost on the critics of the time, who found it a bore.

Boerensymfonie – Henrri Storck – 1944

One cannot write about Belgian film history without mentioning Henri Storck. A very prolific director in a time when there was no film industry in our country and almost no support from the government, the Ostend-born Storck played a vital role in the development of film culture in Belgium. He’s easily also the father of the Royal Belgian Cinémathèque – still going strong 70 years later and now known as Cinematek.

Boerensymfonie (Peasant Symphony) was shot on both Flemish and Walloon farms over a period of three years during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in the Second World War, which meant the documentary couldn’t be overtly political, as opposed to earlier Storck documentaries (Misère au Borinage, Les maisons de la misère). Instead, Storck infuses the depiction of everyday peasant life with a universal humanistic quality, without turning it into a pastoral idyll; paying equal attention to pain and joy. Following in the footsteps of the great Flemish painters, Storck’s pictorial sensibilities bring out the unique beauty of “le plat pays qui est le mien.”

Jeudi on chantera comme dimanche – Luc de Heusch – 1967

Luc de Heusch had already made quite a name for himself as a documentary film-maker and ethnographer – mainly focusing on Africa – when he made his first and only feature film. The ethnographic impulses are still there: for example, the sequence depicting the rooster competition and the overall blend of documentary detail and modernist stylistic flourishes reminds one of an early Antonioni – think 360° single shots, characters subtly looking into the camera, the aforementioned attention to ethnographic detail. The film also has affinities with British kitchen sink dramas however, and in some ways prefigures Ken Loach. De Heusch had an excellent team working on this wonderful film, with the screenplay co-written by Hugo Claus and an impeccable soundtrack by Georges Delerue (Jules et Jim; Le mépris; Il conformista) which helped him cleverly balance several different tonal registers – from drama to comedy, from social realism to romance.

Malpertuis – Harry Kümel – 1971

Another film scored by Delerue, yet it couldn’t be more different from Jeudi on chantera comme dimanche if it tried. Malpertuis – based on a Jean Ray novel – is baroque, grotesque, and executed with such ambition, style and panache that every shot seems like a painting come to life. It is best known as the reason why Orson Welles spent three days in Belgium – a coup de théatre only Harry Kümel could pull off – but it also deserves to be recognised for its artistic merit. It has elements of the Hollywood star’s later works incorporated (think Chimes at Midnight), infused with the high style (dare we call it camp?) of Italian giallo (Suspiria often comes to mind). It features an international cast and crew with, amongst others, Johnny Halliday playing a sailor. Hugely ambitious, with gorgeous sets, expressive camerawork and masterful staging; it was sadly too outré for Cannes, where the English version flopped. In retaliation, Kümel made a radically different version dubbed in Flemish, with a much more outlandish montage. Check out that version if you can, it’s simply delirious!

Toute une nuit – Chantal Akerman – 1982

Certainly not Akerman’s best known film – let alone her most acclaimed – this ballet of love stories almost devoid of dialogue is nevertheless a masterpiece. The cast is a veritable who’s-who of the Belgian acting world circa 1980, featuring the crème de la crème of Flemish, Brussels and Walloon actors, alongside Akerman regulars (like Aurore Clément) and local film personalities in cameo roles. In a sense, this is Akerman’s quintessentially Belgian film. It’s a typical Akerman-take on a narrative device – the network narrative – imbued with her sense of poetry amidst the mundane, and her signature style (static long shots, geometric framing, episodic structure). There are so many beautiful moments in this film, making it hard to pick a favourite, but its greatest strength might have to be the way it manages to capture the feeling of a hot summer night in the city, in a way that no other film has managed before or since. It feels like a dream and it will stick in your mind like bed sheets to your body when it’s still 25° out at 3 AM.

Benvenuta – André Delvaux – 1983

André Delvaux made many masterpieces and was arguably Belgium’s greatest director alongside Akerman, so selecting Benvenuta over his other films is difficult . How to choose between the couples Anouk Aimée and Yves Montand (Un soir, un train), Anna Karina and Bulle Ogier (Rendez-vous à Bray), or Fanny Ardent and Vittorio Gassman (Benvenuta)? Luckily for me, Benvenuta was shot in my hometown of Ghent, which never looked better or more mysterious. Benvenuta speaks to the darker side of love and its images suggest a muted violence, with lots of frames within the frame, wonderful set designs (that red room!) and masterful editing that weaves a story within the story, conflating different times and places. If all of this doesn’t convince you to watch Benvenuta, then know that Delvaux himself described this film as a ”liturgy of sex.” Amen!

La promesse – Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne – 1996

If Jeudi on chantera comme dimanche prefigures Ken Loach at his best, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s third feature film easily reaches and surpasses Loach’s heights. Released at the very end of cinema’s centenary, this film deserves to be in this list just for launching the career of two of Belgium’s finest actors, Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet. It has so much more to offer though: the Daredenne brothers’ haunting evocation of the ravaged industry of Liège and Seraing, or their restless camera scanning the concrete jungle for songs of redemption. As a bonus, we get a Belgian take on the great French tradition of including performances of chansons in almost every film. Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet render an unforgettable duet, karaoke-ing to Joe (son of blacklisted Hollywood director Jules) Dassin’s Siffler sur la colline.