The Belgian crime drama The Ardennes is predictably tense and violent, but its aesthetic pleasures are also considerable. Director Robin Pront plays a lot of familiar notes, but with just enough verve and variation to keep things interesting. The film opens in the immediate aftermath of a botched robbery, as a masked man and a female getaway driver breathlessly flee the scene without the third member of their crew. The ones escaping are Dave (Jeroen Perceval) and Sylvie (Veerle Baetens); the one left behind is Kenny (Kevin Janssens), Dave’s older brother and Sylvie’s boyfriend. Kenny keeps his mouth shut about his accomplices, so only he gets sent to prison.
Things have changed when he gets out on parole four years later: Dave is now diligently working a legit job at a car wash, while Sylvie is trying to clean herself up, attending group therapy sessions to kick her addiction. Oh, also Dave is now in love with Sylvie, and not only are they planning to move in together, they’re expecting a child. Needless to say, the duo don’t reveal that to Kenny, who kept a picture of Sylvie on his wall his whole time in prison.
Pront and his cast clearly know how to keep us watching. The director likes to shoot his scenes as moodily lit tableaux, the images like something out of a grisly storybook. The urban milieu here is gray and oppressive — the title refers to a forest that the brothers used to go to as children, during a more carefree time — but there’s a rough beauty in it. Meanwhile, each character seems to represent a specific attitude toward the world.
Tough, aggressive Kenny is bursting with dark energy — he wants to return to things as they were when he left — and Dave and Sylvie differ in their responses to him: He’s pliant, while she turns away. Sylvie wants the younger brother to take a stand, show some guts and tell Kenny about their relationship. Dave wants to wait till the time is right, but it turns out there’s never a good time to tell your psycho ex-con brother that you’re shtupping the woman he loves beyond all reason. And the ever-watchful and paranoid Kenny is already noticing things between them.
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The “crime” part of this crime drama doesn’t really come until the final act. (Shocker: the Ardennes makes an appearance.) Until then, Pront has fun bouncing these characters off one another: a disastrous Christmas dinner here, a nightclub fight there. Little details acquire huge importance. Kenny notices that his mom doesn’t have any pictures of him on the wall. “Maybe you’re not photogenic” is her playfully snide response, and in their brief interaction you can feel a lifetime of pain for both mother and child.
Pront and his cast also use movement and behavior to set these people apart from your standard-issue crime-flick tough guys. Dave might look like a bruiser, but with his pinched face and almost concave stance, he’s no match physically for the restless, overpowering Kenny. The older brother is only a couple of inches taller, but he always seems to take up twice the space as his younger sibling and has way more vigor; you can see how Dave might have spent years in this man’s shadow, and you see him once again trying to keep up.
Sylvie, on the other hand, is quick, nervous, angry — you feel her frustration with Dave, and you even suspect that, on some deeper level, she may still be drawn to Kenny’s alpha-male vitality. The way the film visually translates its fairly schematic scenario is interesting; there’s a subtle, dance-like quality to the characters’ interaction, and the spare settings and dimly lit spaces highlight the physicality of the actors.
Once things get a little more climactic, The Ardennes enters a strange and less interesting phase — a mixture of boilerplate neo-noir violence with occasional bursts of surrealism. The influence of the Coen brothers (and in particular films like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona) stamps the film, with its twisty confrontations and jolts of macabre humor. But what makes the Coens special is the mixture of film-nerd playfulness and fairytale sincerity they bring to even their darkest work — they’re loose in spirit, but exacting in form. Pront has the precision, but his story merely flirts with the bizarre; it never goes truly crazy. That’s why, in the end, for all the artistry on display, The Ardennes is more admirable than inspiring. It has style, and even suspense, but little imagination.