Nov 27, 2015

Brussels by Night

If Western Europe ever had its own sort of equivalent to William Friedkin during the 1980s, it was almost certainly Flemish auteur Marc Didden (Sailors Don't Cry, Mannen maken plannen aka A Man Needs a Plan), who made the eponymous metropolis featured in his debut feature Brussels by Night (1983) seem like a deathly dreary dystopian hellhole where beauteous blondes are either miscegenating whores or sullen spinsters, married Arab fathers cannot keep their hands off said miscegenating blonde whores, predatory barmaids throw themselves at broken men, and musicians sing melancholy covers of crappy American pop songs in broken English, among other things. Based on a script that was co-written by Belgian cult auteur Dominique Deruddere who went on to direct the Bukowskian masterpiece Crazy Love (1987) aka Love Is a Dog from Hell (which Didden co-penned), the film might be best described as the all the darker and more nihilistic Belgian answer to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as a gritty and visceral piece of unhinged urban cinema where social alienation, pathological paranoia, anhedonia, race hate, senseless acts of violence, death fixations, and self-loathing are just some of the problems that plague the hopelessly angst-ridden antihero, who was portrayed by one of the greatest and most eclectic Flemish actors of his era. Indeed, as a man that got his start starring in the early films of Belgian master auteur André Delvaux, including portraying the happy-go-lucky young man ‘Val’ in Un soir, un train (1968) aka One Night... a Train, and who later appeared in the great contemporary cult flick Ex Drummer (2007) directed by Koen Mortier, François Beukelaers can certainly be considered a sort of Brando or Pacino of Belgian cinema and his performance in Brussels by Night offers ample reason as he portrays one of the most unsettlingly emotionally constipated characters I have ever seen as a uniquely repugnant yet sometimes strangely charming chap that is fed up with life and the world who you just cannot help but somewhat empathize with, at least for about the first hour or so of the film. While Belgium has a grand tradition of dark and dreary cinema as indicated by everything from Delvaux's morbidly phantasmagorical debut masterpiece De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen (1966) aka The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short to anarchic art-shockers like Roland Lethem's La fée sanguinaire (1969) aka The Bloodthirsty Fairy to Thierry Zéno's fiercely fucked feces-filled arthouse affair Vase de noces (1974) aka Wedding Through aka The Pig Fucking Movie to sardonic dystopian cult trash like Rob Van Eyck's The Afterman (1985), Didden’s film took the malignant melancholy and dejecting despair to a new and more serious extreme, albeit in a surprisingly accessible way as if the film was made distinctly to depress as many as people as possible as opposed to just merely appealing to Bergman and Antonioni fans. 

 Directed by a young ex-journalist who was heavily influenced by the “no future” attitude of punk, the existentialist novels of Italian-Jewish writer Alberto Moravia (whose works have been adapted by Vittorio de Sica, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, etc.), and especially the largely forgotten French flick Extérieur, nuit (1980) aka Exterior Night directed by Jacques Bral, Brussels by Night is a film that ultimately makes it seem quite fitting that Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis cheated on his wife with a Belgian music journalist not long before he killed himself. Notably, the only filmmaking experience that Didden had before directing the film was as a sailor extra in Harry Kümel’s misunderstood fantastique genre masterpiece Malpertuis (1971) and collaborating on the fairly unknown Belgian punk documentary Gisteren zal ik pogo dansen (1978) aka Yesterday I’ll Pogo. Incidentally, Didden would later take a screenwriting course that was taught Kümel which would act as the genesis for Brussels by Night as the filmmaker would write the film's screenplay for the class, which won a national prize for ‘best screenplay’ in 1980 and ultimately led the way for him to get the opportunity to direct the film. Of course, being a novice filmmaker, Didden naturally needed guidance and ultimately hired Dominique Deruddere to act as a sort of assistant auteur (in fact, Deruddere would state in the documentary The Brussels by Night Archives regarding his contribution to the film, “Here I was responsible for a large part of the visuality because Marc was very inexperienced. He knew what he wanted but did not how to do it technically. While I knew more about how to do it. But not everything. I still don’t.”). A piece of rather unpleasant ‘nihilist noir’ that combines the nocturnal urban entertainment value of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) with the glacial emotions and physical violence of a Michael Haneke flick, Didden's flick is notable for being a rare cinematic work that manages to make misanthropy, cultural cynicism, collective alienation, and self-destruction palatable to the sort of pop culture philistine that thinks that Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest filmmakers that has ever lived. The increasingly foreboding story of a middle-aged married Flemish truck driver who considers committing suicide but instead abruptly decides to travel to Brussels where he runs into an old retired friend and randomly starts a troubled quasi-romance with a hot yet slutty blonde bartender who is also banging a racially sensitive Arab that the protagonist naturally grows to deeply loathe and resent, Brussels by Night is, if nothing else, one of the best ‘feel-bad’ flicks I have ever seen, even if I cannot really call it a masterpiece. 

 At the very beginning of the film, the viewer gets more than just a mere hint that there is something not quite right about antihero Max (François Beukelaers) because he is initially portrayed playing a rather heated game of one-man Russian roulette where he seems both simultaneously heavily relieved and considerably depressed when a bullet does not go through his brain after he intensely pulls the trigger of a gun that he has shoved in his mouth. Instead of offing himself, Max ultimately decides to use his decision to give up on life as an excuse to catch a train to Brussels where a fat old bourgeois bitch questions the fact that he is riding in the first class section, as if he is a stupid lowly prole who does not deserve to be among the rich and rather rotund. Upon arriving at the Brussels trains station, Max demonstrates his short temper and propensity for violence by kicking and ultimately smashing the glass display case of a cigarette vending machine in front of various strangers after the machine steals his money. Upon getting a taxi that is driven by a sarcastic slob, Max disobeys the cabbie by smoking and then eventually randomly jumping out of the car in the middle of a busy tunnel. From there, Max heads to a mall where he runs up an escalator that is going in the opposite direction and then attempts to call his wife on a public payphone. Indeed, throughout the film, Max tries in vain to get in touch with his beloved wifey, but not until the end of the film does the viewer realize why she will not pick up.  Like most things in his personal life, Max is fairly evasive when it comes to discussing his somewhat mysterious spouse, so it is only fitting that he eventually hooks up with a slutty chick who has no qualms about sleeping with strange married men.  Unfortunately, starting lurid love affairs with lecherous ladies oftentimes causes hostility between the various men that dare to fuck such women, or so Max learns after falling for a Flemish ice queen who seems to get a sick kick out of pitting men against one another.

 While randomly walking the streets of Brussels, Max’s old short and pudgy friend Louie (Michiel Mentens) spots him, yells his name, and then somewhat insults him by stating, “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you knew how to get to Brussels.” As he explains to Max, Louie is now retired and lives with his beautiful blonde spinster daughter Josephine (Nellie Rosiers), who apparently cannot find a single decent marriageable man in the entire city. Naturally, Max follows Louie back to his flat where the two shoot the shit. When Max explains the he and his wife do not have any children, Louie asks him, “You have been married for six years and you still haven’t talked to your wife about children. Max, are you sure you are right in the head?,” to which the protagonist somewhat absurdly replies in a humorously unwitting quasi-autistic fashion, “We haven’t discussed it yet,” as if having children is a banal business transaction that is about as important as deciding on a restaurant to eat at. After half-jokingly asking Max “Are you sure you are right in the head?,” Louie expresses his sadness in regard to the fact that no man wants to marry his nearly middle-aged barren daughter, complaining, “A good girl but can’t find a husband. Actually, her name is Josephine-Charlotte, like the princess.” Indeed, it seems the most of the women in the film have a hard time finding decent men, but then again most of them are portrayed as lecherous whores that believe they will eventually become a famous actress and will fuck a guy for a beer.  Before taking a brief nap at Louie's apartment, Max stares at his friend's daughter Josephine-Charlotte as if he has a deep desire to defile her seemingly virginal body, though he controls himself and does not actually act on his instincts.

 After going to a bar with Louie and getting terribly annoyed with a hot yet whorish barmaid who attempts to get him to buy her a beer, Max states to the classless chick, “I’ll give you a new mug, if you like” and then goes to another taproom that is completely empty where he drinks by himself while the fairly attractive female bartender reads a book. Although initially somewhat rude and emotionally apathetic towards the bartender, Alice (Ingrid De Vos of Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit (1982) and Hans Herbots’ De Behandeling (2014) aka The Treatment), Max warms up to her when she states to him, “And don’t drink too much. I can see you are sad,” as if he appreciates the fact that someone has finally taken notice and interest in his glaring misery.  When an effeminate Moroccan Arab named Abdel (Amid Chakir of Didden's Istanbul (1985) and Crazy Love (1987)) eventually shows up at the bar, he less than sincerely states to Alice regarding the protagonist, “...if he’s your friend he’s my friend, too.” As becomes quite apparent as the film progresses, brown boy Abdel is in love with Alice and Max will soon by waging a very personal war against him for the bartender’s heart in what might be best described as a hate-based bizarre love triangle of the increasingly racially-charged sort. When Max temporarily leaves the bar to once again try to call his wife, Alice reveals her somewhat morbid mindset by stating to Abdel regarding the protagonist, “I like him. I like unhappy people. They make me happy. I like drama.” While Alice agrees to close the bar early so that the three virtual strangers can hangout at a more hip bar, Max ruins their plans to attempting to attack a doorman, so they all head back to Abdel’s apartment and eat Moroccan food. When Abdel tries to be superficially friendly with the protagonist by asking him where he is from, Max firmly states “nowhere” in a somewhat agitated fashion and then abruptly decides to leave when he gets annoyed after the over curious Arab asks him too many stupid questions, though he demands that Alice come with him. As one expect, Max and Alice proceed to have sex, with the former forcing the latter to foot the bill at a sleazy old hotel that is run by a sleazy gay old man. While the carnal session turns out ideal, Alice jokingly complains that Max should not have said “A double, please” in French while cuming inside of her. Although the two share a fairly happy and intimate orgasmic night together, this is ultimately the closest Max will ever get to Alice, as the antihero’s deteriorating sanity and paranoia only becomes all the more debilitating as the film progresses. 

A sort of bargain bin femme fatale who exploits the vulnerabilities and emotions of men for seemingly no reason at all aside from possibly as a means to pass the boredom, Alice ultimately begins playing Max and Abdel against one another in a classically female passive-aggressive fashion as if she is not even completely in control of her emotionally manipulative behavior. Indeed, shortly after Max leaves her apartment, Abdel shows up and rightly accuses her of fucking the protagonist. While Alice does not deny it, she complains to Abdel that she “doesn’t like jealous men” and then attempts to comfort the jealous Arab by stating to him, “I like him…But I like you more.” Meanwhile, Max meets up with his friend/co-employee Jules (Fred Van Kuyk) at a café and the two discuss their problems with work and women. After berating Max for abruptly quitting his driving job by simply abandoning the position, Jules tells him he is not cut out for such employment, stating, “You think too much. You’re not suitable for the work we do.” When Jules confesses that his wife is having an affair with “cheesemonger” and Max tells him that he should not allow himself to be cuckolded, his friend brags that he is currently carrying on an affair with a pair of perky twins.  Rather revealingly, Max also hints at his growing hatred for Abdel by randomly asking Jules if his wife is fucking a Moroccan, as if Brussels was already flooded with as many third world aliens as it is today. Later that night, Max and Jules meet up with Abdel and Alice at the latter’s sister’s 21st birthday party where racial tensions ultimately reach a boiling point. Indeed, when a somewhat dorky four-eyed blonde sits beside Abdel and reveals that she is the typical naive liberal-brainwashed white moron by stating to him in Dutch, “I don’t think us white people should feel superior to you. I think there are far too many prejudices. People like you are first and foremost people. With the same faults and feelings, etc.,” Max jovially lies to the French-speaking Arab and says, “She’d like to give you a blow job.” When Max gets the DJ at the party to play “La Mamba” and then proceeds to passionately kiss Alice while dancing with her, Abdel gets extremely jealous, grabs the dorky white girl with glasses, and begins aggressively kissing her, thus predictably resulting in the ostensibly liberal-minded girl pushing him away and a random party guest punching the Arab in the face for daring to defile a shy Aryan chick. After agreeing to leave Jules behind as a “souvenir,” the three head to a café where Max yells at Abdel for stupidly kissing a random white girl in a room full of white people. Playing the pathetic victim, Abdel irrationally takes out his shame and feelings of rejection on Alice by stating to her, “You’re as big a slut as the rest” and then running out of the building like an upset little girl. Of course, Alice chases Abdel and Max slowly follows behind, only to be disheartened when he sees his love interest curiously sharing an extra intimate moment with the super sensitive camel jockey who just called her a slut. While they all agree to take a day trip to Ronquières Inclined Plane in central Belgium the next day, it is quite obvious that it is only a matter of time before Max and Abdel violently butt heads.

 Upon doing some personal research by questioning random people around the city, Max discovers that his nemesis Abdel is a married father and decides to confront Abdel about this fact, stating, “I’ve been asking around. You’ve got a wife and child in Morocco yet you’re living it up here…With Alice. You and Alice, I don’t think much of that.” Needless to say, Abdel is not too happy when Max reminds him of the fact he has a family back home, as he is now living the ultimate third world dream of living a first world lifestyle that involves premium Europid pussy. On top of that, Max begins openly referring to Abdel as “wog” and “Mustafa,” so naturally the Arab decides to give up on pretending to befriend the protagonist and instead begins acting all moody and broody. Ultimately, Max picks up Alice, Abdel, and Louie in a Jaguar that he has just stolen and they head to Ronquières Inclined Plane in the Walloon municipality of Ittre for a scenic day trip where everything goes wrong and them some as the protagonist’s pathological jealousy, rage, and paranoia reaches murderous proportions. Demonstrating some slight schizophrenic qualities that are quite fitting in a nation that is divided by both language and culture, Max is depicted at one point in the film complaining to Alice in regard to people in general, “I want them all to leave me alone. To stop staring at me on the street and to shut up on the radio. So that I can be myself.” While she curiously only adds to his rage by leading him on and fueling his jealousy, Alice is absolutely convinced that Max will eventually explode as indicated by her remark to Abdel in regard to the protagonist, “I think he’s very unhappy. His problem is that he doesn’t say anything. One day it’ll come out and then we’ll be surprised.” Upon arriving in Ittre, Max gets so enraged while taking a photo of Alice and Abdel that he smashes Louie’s prized camera and then runs away. Not long after, Max emotionally manipulates Alice by pretending he is dead just because he wants to see her reaction. When the four head to a tourist site, a tour guide asks their nationality and Max responds, “Three Flemings and an Arab,” though he jokes that he is “...the Arab.” Of course, the fleeting moments of comic relief pretty much ends there.

At one point during their day trip, Max forces Alice to get into his car so they can “talk” and then demands that she tells him whether or not she believes in capital punishment. Needless to say, Max is fairly agitated by Alice’s stubborn apathy when it comes to answering his questions, though he eventually gets her to state regarding capital punishment that she believes, “In some circumstances, yes. If it happened in cold blood, yes.” When Max asks her what she thinks, “If a madman murdered a madwoman. Or another madman,” Alice naturally begins to become somewhat unsettled as she realize that the protagonist is trying to hint to something her. Meanwhile, Abdel becomes increasingly agitated and states to Louie regarding Max, “I should’ve punched him in the face right away. He’s going too far. They deal with it differently in Morocco.” Clearly, Abdel is quite jealous of Max as he does not want him stealing his precious white whore from him. When Alice subsequently gets out of Max’s car and tells Abdel that she is no longer interested in being the concubine of a gutter sheik, the lovelorn towelhead becomes enraged and states to her, “It’s because of Max you don’t want me anymore.” Not surprisingly, when Abdel demands that Alice tell him what Max had said about him earlier that day and she states, “He said he wasn’t jealous [of] a wog,” the angry Arab slaps her so hard that she falls to the ground. Naturally, Max is not going to tolerate some swarthy wog hitting the woman he is starting to fall in love with, so he gets out of his Jaguar and starts effortlessly beating the shit out of Abdel while Louie holds Alice back. Of course, being a man with a less than sound of mind that is involved in a heated brawl with his untermensch romantic rival, Max ultimately opts to brutally murder Abdel by simply picking him up and swiftly throwing him over the railing from what is no less than a three-story drop. While Louie attempts to get Alice to lie to the cops about Max's actions by stating, “Wipe your eyes before you see the commissioner […] It was an accident. He didn’t mean it. He wasn’t himself,” she is an erratic woman that feels guilty about her coffee-colored fuckboy’s violent death and decides to tell the police everything, stating to a detective in regard to Max, “No, it wasn’t an accident. I am sure of that. I know him too well for that. I know what he is capable of.” When the cop questions how she can know Max so well if she only just met him a couple days before, Alice defends her position by stating, “A lot has happened since Thursday. And I’ve talked to him a lot. About everything. About life…About death…About everything.” Ultimately it is revealed that Abdel is not the first person that Max killed, hence what incited him to attempt suicide at the beginning of the film.

After Brussels by Night became a cult hit that somewhat revolutionized Belgian cinema in terms of its brutal content and fairly nihilistic ‘messge’ (or lack thereof), auteur Marc Didden subsequently had the opportunity to direct what was his closest thing to a mainstream international film production. Indeed, Istanbul (1985) is notable for starring eccentric Hollywood actor Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dune) as a deranged pedophiliac drifter who accidentally ends up in Belgian where he hooks up with a cynical loser portrayed by Crazy Love director Dominique Deruddere and ultimately goes on a road trip that involves attempting to get enough money to travel the titular Turkish city by agreeing to kidnap the fairly young daughter of a distraught father played François Beukelaers whose wife left him for a shady young Italian restaurant owner. While Didden's second feature is certainly worth checking out, it unfortunately oftentimes feels rather contrived, overly goofy, and quite Hollywood-esque, and of course ultimately lacks the uncompromisingly visceral and nihilistic essence of his decidedly dejecting yet nonetheless endlessly enthralling debut. Aside from Istanbul, Didden also worked on a freeform stage adaptation of Jean-Luc Goard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) entitled Re-Make/Re-Model (1983) that was directed by Brussels by Night lead François Beukelaers, thus reflecting the somewhat unconventional working relationship between the auteur and actor. Of course, Beukelaers is just as much responsible for the film’s potency as Didden, whose performance is just as an imperative ingredient to Brussels by Night as that of Marlon Brando in László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), Robert De Niro in Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), and Christoph Waltz in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), among countless other examples. It should be noted that idiosyncratic artistic collaborations are somewhat of a tradition in Belgian cinema as is perfectly demonstrated by a classic flick like Meeuwen sterven in de haven (1955) aka Seagulls Die in the Harbour, which was co-written and co-directed by a film critic (Roland Verhavert), a writer (Ivo Michiels) and an amateur filmmaker (Rik Kuypers) and which is sort of like a 1950s Brussels by Night as a bilingual Flemish flick of the fiercely forlorn noir-ish sort about a lonely fellow in a trench-coat who finds temporary solace in the form of misfits and equally internally wounded women.

A work that somehow manages to combine the haunting the nightlife paintings of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux and films of his namesake André Delvaux with a (post)punk spirit that is comparable to the cinematic works of No Wave filmmakers like Amos Poe and Vivienne Dick while also attempting to be accessible to mainstream viewers, Brussels by Night was fittingly dedicated to two famous figures that died under dubious deaths, including French-speaking pop journalist Bert Bertrand (who committed suicide in 1983 while staying in NYC) and tragic Hollywood star Natalie Wood (whose two-time husband Robert Wagner was suspected of playing a role in her somewhat bizarre drowning). Not surprisingly, in the doc The Brussels by Night Archives, Didden’s ex-boss Guy Mortier, who was the editor-in-chief of HUMO magazine, would describe the antihero of the film being somewhat like the filmmaker, stating, “People have speculated about to what extent the main character Max is Marc Didden. It’s certainly an aspect of Marc. The Marc Didden who wants to hit all those he detests and who wants to destroy everything. But there is also a very different Marc Didden. Someone who also wants to hit everyone and destroy everything.” Featuring grating Belgian covers of popular American pop songs like “Piece of My Heart” and a malignantly somber Brussels where beauteous blondes become sullen spinsters and miscegenation and familicide seem more common than genuine love and affection, Brussels by Night ultimately reveals a spiritually necrotic Belgium that seems to be on the verge of collective suicide, so it should be no surprise that the indigenous population birth rate of the country has been in steady decline for decades while the Muslim Arab populations has been growing at a absolutely revolting rate (while around 23% of the nation's population is of non-Belgian origin, around 70% of Brussels is of non-Belgian origin, with about 36% being Muslim Arabs and negroes).  Although completely different types of films, Brussels by Night makes a great double feature with Ex Drummer as it demonstrates that the lowland nation has only become all the more degenerate and nihilistic over the past two decades.  In terms of brutal yet stylish European flicks with teeth and a fiercely foreboding atmosphere, Didden's flick also makes for an excellent double feature with the Austrian serial killer flick Angst (1983) aka Fear directed by Gerald Kargl.  Indeed, if you want to see a rare 1980s European flick with testicular fortitude that does not wallow in pretentious art faggotry and makes most of Scorsese's post-Taxi Driver films seem like goofy big budget Guidosploitation pieces and virtually all of Tarantino's films seem like autistic exercises in superficially stylized fanboy masturbation, Brussels by Night makes for a somewhat surprisingly worthwhile cinematic work that demonstrates that anti-romantic race-hate in a noir-ish form can make for an endearing experience if senseless death and destruction is involved.

-Ty E

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