TIFF 2015: The Ardennes
Brotherly bonds get quite the test in The Ardennes, a surprisingly tense and entertaining spin on a familiar tale from first-time director Robin Pront. Opening with a robbery gone wrong, Dave (Jeroen Perceval, who also co-wrote the film with Pront) leaves his brother Kenneth (Kevin Janssens) behind, taking off with Kenneth’s girlfriend Sylvie (Veerle Baetens). Kenneth refuses to rat on his brother and girlfriend, so he gets the maximum punishment. Cut to four years later, and Dave picks up Kenneth from prison after he serves his term. Kenneth is excited to get back into the swing of things, but Dave has been withholding two bombshells from him: Dave and Sylvie became a couple while Kenneth was in prison, and now they’re expecting a child. And since Kenneth is a huge mass of masculine fury with a short fuse, they’re concerned about how he’ll take the news.
The question of whether or not Kenneth will find out about his brother and Sylvie is the sort of old, clichéd material that feels worn out by now, and when Pront & Perceval’s script leans on this The Ardennes can start feeling awfully generic. But the screenplay makes up for its narrative shortcomings by having a strong and rich thematic core, with Dave and Sylvie trying to climb their way out from below the poverty line to live a standard life (“I just want to be dull,” Sylvie says at one point). Kenneth’s release from prison puts a wrench into their plans, and his menacing presence in their lives serves as a reminder of their selfish decision four years earlier, threatening to drag them back down to the place they’ve tried so hard to escape from.
Pront and director of photography Robrecht Heyvaert give the film a slick, grimy look that heightens the dramatic stakes, highlighting the poor living conditions and little opportunities for escape. Perceval and Janssens work great together as the two battling brothers, but Baetens—who people might recognize from her excellent turn in The Broken Circle Breakdown—is fantastic as Sylvie. An unexpected turn in the film’s final act that moves things to rural Belgium brings a touch of the eccentric and surreal that might prove divisive, but it all leads to a highly intense and brutal climax that’ll make sure people won’t forget about The Ardennes after they see it. The finale’s nihilism might turn some viewers off, but it sure as hell leaves a mark, and that counts for something.