When I finished Robin Pront’s The Ardennes, I knew I needed to sleep on it. I simply felt too many conflicting emotions. Did I like the film and its bizarre genre pastiches? Its intense Clint Eastwood/Coen Brothers color-grading that submerged the whole film in a sea of wintry grays and dark blues? Its nihilistic, David Fincher third act plot twists where nobody wins and everyone loses? A subtle undercurrent of David Lynch surrealism—a pair of roving ostriches in the last twenty minutes seem to have stumbled from the set of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009). The Ardennes wasn’t so much an original film as a mishmash of ideas from other, more established filmmakers. So again, I asked myself: did I like it?
Having had a night to think it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, I do like The Ardennes. All cinema is derivative: directors shamelessly steal and borrow from their predecessors and contemporaries in a ceaseless creative dialectic. Some directors, like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, might wear their influences on their sleeves. But as long as they create something compelling and meaningful we allow it. And The Ardennes was certainly both. It tells the story of two Flemish criminals, brothers Dave (Jeroen Perceval) and Kenny (Kevin Janssens). The film begins with a robbery gone wrong with Dave escaping and Kenny getting sentenced to seven years in prison. After serving four, Kenny gets released to find that things have changed. For one, both his girlfriend Sylvie (Veerle Baetens) and Dave have cleaned up their respective addictions through 12-step programs. Dave has a respectable job working in a car wash, Sylvie is taking masseuse classes so she doesn’t have to work in a strip club anymore. Here’s what Kenny knows: Dave, Sylvie, and the world has moved on without him. Here’s what Kenny doesn’t know: in the meantime, Dave and Sylvie have fallen in love, moved in together, and are pregnant.
As Kenny slowly reintegrates back into the outside world, both Dave and Sylvie realize that he’s different from the man they knew: he seems more untethered, more frantic, more unpredictable. Pront builds tension beautifully, building unease and horror like a symphony going mad. That Kenny eventually explodes into fits of violence seems preordained. But the fact that he doesn’t realize what a monster he’s allowing himself to become isn’t. The best scene in the film comes about thirty minutes before the end: it consists of a hushed conversation between Dave and Kenny in the lobby of a police station, Dave wondering if it would be safer to turn both of them in before things get worse, Kenny trying to needle his way into Dave’s head with guilt. It’s breath-taking and heart-breaking.
As I said, The Ardennes doesn’t really do anything ground-breaking or new. But it did what it did so well that I can’t help recommending it. There’s an honor and dignity to excellent craftsmanship. According to his IMDb page, this was Pront’s first feature-length film. His next project is directing a TV series entitled De bende van Jan de Lichte. Hopefully the television format will give Pront the means to more fully explore and develop his own talents. They are considerable. I’m eager to see what he does next.