The Ardennes forest is best known as the site of the Battle of the Bulge, although one of the sibling protagonists of The Ardennes associates it with idyllic family vacations. But by the time Kenny (Kevin Janssens) prevails on Dave (Jeroen Perceval) to revisit the rugged Belgian woods, another war has erupted.
We meet Dave first, as he dives, fully clothed and masked, into a pool. The camera is below the plunging figure, which makes for a dynamic and disorienting image.
Thus writer-director Robin Pront, making his feature debut, immediately shows his flair for framing events. If only he and co-scripter Jeroen Perceval had devised an equally vivid scenario.
It turns out that Dave is fleeing a botched house robbery. While Dave and Kenny's girlfriend, Sylvie (Veerle Baetens), make their getaway, the third member of the team is arrested. At trial, Kenny doesn't implicate his accomplices.
Four years later, Kenny is released from prison and is eager to reunite with Sylvie. In the meantime, Dave and Sylvie have kicked drugs and booze and decided they want to be "dull" — together. Dave can't bring himself to tell Kenny about this development, although he'll have a clue soon, since Sylvie is pregnant.
Dave risks his own job by getting Kenny hired at the carwash where he works, but the ex-con's intense jealousy threatens that arrangement — and everything else. Kenny stalks Sylvie, even bursting in on her daily 12-step meeting. Violence is inevitable when Kenny decides that Sylvie's new love is Khalid (Rachid El Ghazaoui), her boss at the rave club where she waitresses.
Khalid is of Moroccan descent, which triggers Kenny's xenophobia. But then the hothead, despite being a devoted Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, can't even get along with his French-speaking countrymen. This adds to the brothers' challenges when they head to the Ardennes, where French is the dominant language.
The first half of The Ardennes is a tense family drama, enlivened by visual flourishes. Pront indicates that lower-middle-class Flemish life is a prison by placing his characters within tight confines or behind glass. He makes a tanning bed look like a cell, and stages the first big fight inside the carwash, an industrial location that also suggests film noir's favorite spot: the rain-swept street.
The tone shifts toward the brutally surreal when Kenny and Dave head to the Ardennes on a grim errand. They rendezvous with Kenny's former cellmate (Jan Bijvoet), a cocaine-fueled weirdo who now lives with a cross-dressing man (Sam Louwyck) — not because he's gay, he explains at length, but because all women are treacherous. Kenny might agree.
The movie's climatic sequences are laced with comedy, as when one confrontation is disrupted by a pair of runaway ostriches. But much of the action is grimly predictable and clearly derivative. It replays bits of Pulp Fiction in a Miller's Crossing setting.
The Ardennes was Belgium's entry for the 2017 foreign-film Oscar (it was not nominated), and shares the vibe (and producer) of the country's 2012 candidate, Bullhead. That movie was equally savage, but more distinctive. Perhaps that's because Bullhead was fictionalized from actual events, demonstrating once again that truth is stranger than Tarantino-style fiction.