The Ardennes is a region of Belgium that brothers Dave (Jeroen Perceval) and Kenny (Kevin Janssens), who have both fallen on hard times, nostalgically remember as an emblem of their lost, innocent childhood. Alas, it is also the place they must head to when everything in their current lives goes catastrophically wrong, and a dead body lies in the boot of their car.
How did they reach this sorry pass? Director Robin Pront and co-writer Perceval stress the misery of the brothers’ working-class background, the ever-constant temptation of addiction to drugs or alcohol, and the lack of compassion or understanding they encounter from prospective employers.
Kenny, especially, has turned into a hard case: there is barely a frame of the film where the muscles of his face are not fixed in a taut, defensive, angry grimace.
The Ardennes aims for realism (for instance, in its underlining of the brothers’ Flemish roots), but it mainly follows the path of cliché. Everything seems to have been woven from memories of other movies that treat similar plot material.
The gruesomeness of amateur corpse-disposal procedures evokes the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007). The figure of the tight-lipped, complicit mother (Viviane de Muynck as Mariette) recalls the Australian low-life saga, Snowtown (2011).
Most risibly, in the long scenes devoted to Kenny’s accomplices Stef (Jan Bijvoet) and Joyce (Sam Louwyck), Pront borrows the caricature of a deviant, perverse, underworld sexuality (a killer in drag and lipstick, his sadistic boss with a mental disorder) from Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) – but without any larger context to raise this portrait of supposed crazies above cheap sensationalism.
And then, of course, there is the long history – hard for any budding filmmaker to avoid – of criminal-brothers-at-odds stories, from tough-guy gangster pictures of the 1930s to the oeuvre of James Gray (Little Odessa, 1995). On this level, The Ardennes reaches for a little mythic, elemental, quasi-Biblical potency, but fumbles badly.
There are some involving scenes. Raymond Durgnat once analysed the famous Mount Rushmore sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1958) as offering an excruciating situation – will the villain, finally, help or doom his nemesis? – that transmutes sheer suspense mechanics into compact, ethical drama. Pront handles several turning-points of The Ardennes in a similar fashion, hanging on those moments when Dave must decide to confess to the waiting police or follow Kenny in his nocturnal mission; or when, in the midst of furious fighting, we are not sure who exactly will choose to kill or spare whom.
But Pront’s stylistic treatment of the material never lifts itself above an empty, flashy, quality-TV level. One quickly tires of scene transitions in which booming, musical crescendos give way to sudden silence, and a further dozen such affectations.
The Ardennes does, however, boast a few, intriguingly surreal oddities. A pair of wild, rampaging ostriches plays a pivotal role in the plot. And it is surely rare to find, beyond the zombie genre, a crime melodrama that concludes on a rousing disco track with the splendid lyrics, “I love you / Although you’re dead”.
© Adrian Martin November 2016