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Wrapping Up the 2024 CEUFF Film Festival

If it’s March, it wouldn’t be complete without the Gene Siskel Film Center Chicago European Union Film Festival. After several years of adjustments, the festival has gone through yet another transformation for its 27th annual edition. Rather than featuring films from throughout the Union, this year’s format focused exclusively on movies from one country, Belgium. The intent behind this change is to honor releases from the nation that currently serves in the role of the EU presidency, a function that rotates among member countries from year to year. The Center plans to retain this format in subsequent years, with the focus on Poland in 2025, Cyprus in 2026 and Lithuania in 2027.

I’m not entirely sure what I think about this new format just yet. It’s resulted in a significant shortening of the event, from almost a month to 10 days. Consequently, it’s also resulted in a significant reduction in the number of offerings, dropping from approximately 25-30 to a mere 15. And, because the focus has shifted to just one country, the diversity has diminished, too. What’s more, the connection to the European Union as whole seems significantly diminished with this new focus, which might lead one to believe that the event itself needs a new name.

I can’t say those changes represent improvements, something that appeared to be borne out in the reduced audience sizes that I witnessed at the screenings I attended, at least compared to past years. Because of these programming changes, I only attended three of the event’s screenings this year (compared to the usual 8-10), which are summarized below. So, with that said, check out what’s new in the latest in cinema from Belgium.

“The (Ex)perience of Love” (“Le syndrome des amours passées”) (Belgium/France)

(4/5); Letterboxd (4/5), Imdb.com (8/10), TMDB.com (4/5); Web site Trailer

What’s the difference between love and sex? It’s a conundrum that many of us wrestle with (and one that many of us would probably rather not bother with). However, what if it comes up in connection with resolving a sensitive, ongoing problem? That’s what Sandra (Lucie Debay) and her partner Rémy (Lazare Gousseau) must face when it comes to finding an answer to their longstanding infertility problem. They want a child but are having much difficulty getting pregnant. But, after exploring many options, Sandra’s obstetrician (Vincent Lecuyer) proposes an unusual treatment. After having attended a medical conference, he comes away from it believing that the couple is suffering from “Past Love Syndrome,” a psychological condition that’s blocking the physical act of fertilization, a disorder that can be overcome in most cases by each of the partners sleeping with all of their past sex partners. Sandra and Rémy are modestly stunned but nevertheless open to the prospect, but there’s one issue that needs to be addressed – the partners each have drastically different sexual histories. Rémy has only slept with three other women, while Sandra is, shall we say, considerably more “experienced.” This creates something of a disconnect between them, but, in the interest of achieving their goal of getting pregnant, they leave themselves open to the possibilities, a course of action that’s subsequently filled with numerous unexpected surprises, many of them comic, some of them heartfelt, others heartbreaking. And so the process of becoming would-be parents takes off on an unusual odyssey, one punctuated by lots of laughs and a number of intriguingly profound insights about the nature of love, sex, relationships and fidelity (or substitutes therefor). Writer-directors Raphaël Balboni and Ann Sirot have come up with a delightfully charming, funny and endearing story, one that’s nicely paced and presented with inventive cinematography and a sometimes-whimsical, often-colorful production design. This is one of those offbeat romances that pushes viewers to open their eyes – and their minds – to alternative possibilities when it comes to love and how we approach it, showing us that there are many untapped options out there that many of us have never pondered, let alone explored. Indeed, the experience of love need not be a one-size-fits-all exercise as this film so aptly shows. This is a Belgian import truly worthy of a domestic release. Let’s hope it gets one.

“The Belgian Wave” (Belgium)

(3.5/5); Letterboxd (3.5/5), Imdb.com (7/10), TMDB.com (3.5/5); Web site Trailer

In 1989-90, the skies over Belgium were filled with unidentified flying objects on an ongoing basis, prompting the incident to become known as “the Belgian UFO wave.” Not long after it began, journalist Marc Vaerenbergh (Dominique Rongvaux) began investigating the event in depth, speaking with countless civilian and military witnesses. He stayed on the story until he suddenly and mysteriously vanished (presumably for knowing too much), a disappearance that was never officially solved. Thirty years later, however, a pair of amateur sleuths – including Marc’s drugged-out godson (Karim Barras) and an actress/would-be journalist (Karen De Paduwa) – seek to reopen the case to find out what actually happened. The result is a wacky, wild, trippy, substance-laced road trip tale that includes interactions with a cloning/alien hybrid cult, secret military operations, Marc’s spaced-out former girlfriend, the reporter’s onetime peers and other assorted colorful characters. The story is told through a polished amalgamation of contemporary footage, surreal sequences and simulated archive/found footage reels, beautifully shot in vibrant colors and expertly edited to sustain pacing, maintain interest and keep viewers guessing about what’s coming next. The narrative seamlessly incorporates hefty doses of off-the-wall humor, much of it visual and much of it seeming to come from out of left field but that nearly always successfully manages to logically tie back to the main storyline. Collectively, these elements make for a sidesplitting, fun-filled flick reminiscent of sci-fi/drug-induced cult favorites like “Liquid Sky” (1982), enjoyable from its outrageous start to its even more outrageous finish. My only criticism here is that the film tends to get a little too self-indulgent with its sense of off-the-wall and macabre antics the further one gets into the story, but, in light of everything that writer-director Jérôme Vandewattyne manages to get right, that’s a rather minor shortcoming in the overall scheme of things. “The Belgian Wave” is a picture one will not readily forget, especially if viewed with suitable “enhancement” (wink) on a big screen with a great sound system. To quote the Grateful Dead, after watching this one, you’re likely to walk out of the theater and say to yourself, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Indeed.

“The Falling Star” (“L’étoile filante”) (Belgium/France)

(1.5/5); Letterboxd (1.5/5), Imdb.com (3/10), TMDB.com (1.5/5); Web site

It’s always frustrating to walk out of a movie and ask yourself afterward, “What did I just watch?” That was my reaction to this scattered, unfocused offering from the writing-directing duo of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, and that’s unfortunate given that this release has some definite strengths in its corner. This tale tells the story of a radical activist (Abel) who’s been on the run since 1986 and has been laying low of late by working as a bartender in a corner dive known as The Falling Star. However, when he’s approached by a mysterious stranger with a malfunctioning prosthetic arm (Bruno Romy) in search of revenge, he must go back into hiding, although this time he does so by putting up an unwitting, easily manipulated lookalike double (also Abel) in his place. It’s an all-too-familiar narrative in which audiences are bound to know in advance that things are going to go very wrong when the plan is implemented. In this case, though, viewers are unlikely to figure out just how wrong they’ll go – and it has nothing to do with carefully crafted humorous incidents designed to evoke hearty laughs. Rather, the woefully errant plotline unfolds with a series of disjointed, unrelated bits that rarely work and seldom connect. The picture truly plays like a work that was made up by its creators as they went along, taking a pile of comic possibilities and throwing them all at the wall to see what sticks. There’s an especially heavy reliance on slapstick, some of which is admittedly inspired but most of which plays like the dysfunctional routines Woody Allen tried to pull off in some of his early films. And, the further one gets into the story, the more it comes across like a protracted improv exercise, including everything from music video-style dance routines to surreal flashbacks to embarrassingly rampant silliness. There are also some lame attempts at incorporating social commentary, which largely comes out of left field and has only a tangential nexus to the principal story thread. As noted earlier, all of this is regrettable, too, considering the elements that the film does have going for it – a modestly interesting, potential-filled premise, an exquisite production design, a deftly chosen soundtrack and an overall stylish look, especially in the cinematography. However, the filmmakers don’t know how to harness these attributes and fashion them into a cohesive, attention-holding story. The closer this one got to the end, the more I couldn’t wait for it to be over, despite its comparatively short 1:38:00 runtime. Indeed, there are plenty of falling stars in this cinematic disaster, but they don’t come down from the sky, and I have to wonder how many of them were intentionally planned by their makers.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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