Sundance Review: 'Belgica' Directed By Felix van Groeningen

Raucous, booming music pumps warm blood through the veins of Belgica, the follow-up feature from Belgian director, Felix van Groeningen, whose last music-based drama, The Broken Circle Breakdown, was an indie sensation. This time he expands on many of the relationship woes experienced in that film, including a pain-drenched tale of siblings whose reckless lifestyles threaten to destroy their successful nightclub venture.

Based loosely on actual events inspired by Groeningen's father, the film is set in the titular rundown bar operated by Jo (Stef Aerts), whose whose rockstar appearance, accentuated by a saggy eyelid caused by a childhood infection, is merely a mask for his quiet demeanor. He's a doer, and when he had a dream of opening his own bar, he did it. When he had a dream of making it into something more, he set out to make it happen. But for that, he needs the help of his older brother, Frank (the charismatic Tom Vermeir), who is struggling with the boredom of life with a wife and kid. He's desperate for a change, which given his obviously aggressive temperament, is both a recipe for disaster and a chance to do something worthwhile.

Based on the real-life Charlatan Bar, the Belgica doesn't look like much at first; it's dirty, smelly, probably of sweat and stale beer, but it has atmosphere. The crew of regulars lend the place its charm, an everyman spirit in which nobody is turned away. That's a solid business model, up until it isn't. Frank lures in a popular DJ who ramps up the customers, plus an innovative, diverse group of musical acts, the Belgica becomes the happening spot, but with all of the success comes problems.

Issues at the bar swirl with the problems each brother brings from the outside. Frank's wife is skeptical of the entire venture and pressures him to be more of a family man, something he doesn't want to ever do. Jo's on again/off again relationship with his own girlfriend cause tensions that ripple throughout the staff. Groeningen creates a Shakespearean melodrama around the duo, one that sees them struggling not to become everything they fear most; becoming deadbeats like their father, becoming failures, becoming domesticated.

Such interpersonal crises are often part of the rags-to-riches showbiz story, so the nuts and bolts of the film feel very familar. Greed, betrayal, and jealousy bang at the bar's walls like the booming bass of a kick drum, but they don't resonate as memorably as the incredible soundtrack. An electric, adrenaline-fueled score (mostly by a group called Soulwax), comprised of everything from punk rock to hip-hop, creates an intoxicating, euphoric aura such that you'll feel as if you're one with the bar's drunken masses. Much like Irish filmmaker John Carney, Groeningen has keyed in on how music can affect a person down to their very soul. He abandons the cross-cutting style that accented his last film for a more straight forward approach, but his jerky camera movements should have been left solely for capturing the chaos of the bar's musical performances.

It's easy to see why Sundance, who opened with the energetic Whiplash just a couple of years ago, would choose Belgica for this year's opener. While Jo and Frank's story isn't compelling on its own, the music is guaranteed to grab audiences and take them on an audio journey they'll want to listen to again and again.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5