Because of the almost insurmountable linguistic barrier between Flemish in Flanders and French in Wallonia, the history of twentieth-century Belgian cinema is best seen as a ‘split screen’ between two language cultures. 1 Notwithstanding the closer collaborations between the various regional film funds over the years, traces of the division remain unequivocally visible in daily life and institutional practices alike.

Commercially speaking, Flemish films have been more successful than French-language movies in Belgium: Le Huitième Jour (The Eighth Day, Jaco Van Dormael, 1996), at number 7, is the only francophone picture to have cracked the Belgian box-office top 20. In the domestic market, a Flemish-language film has two advantages. First, about 60 percent of Belgians belongs to the Flemish-speaking community, with 40 percent being native French speakers. 2 Second, a francophone film must always compete with French films released in Belgium, thus a Flemish film seems more special, something of a treat. The great majority of Flemish words are similar to their corresponding Dutch words—the pronunciation is only slightly different—and, in principle, there is no need to subtitle a Flemish film for an audience in the Netherlands, if not spoken in specific dialects. Nonetheless, a Dutch remake of the highest-attended Belgian film ever, Loft (Erik Van Looy, 2008), whose plot and dialogue were exceedingly close to the original, was preferred over the Flemish version. 3

In terms of cultural prestige, however, it has always seemed that the situation is reversed. In general, Belgium’s French-language films have attracted more of the limelight at international film festivals – Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto le héros (Toto The Hero, 1991), as well as films by Chantal Akerman, the Dardenne brothers, Marion Hänsel, Bouli Lanners – and the films from Wallonia have larger cult followings – for example, the celebrated ‘nouvelle violence’ mockumentary C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992) and the horror films directed by Fabrice du Welz. These films have the added advantage that their primary language resounds with cinephiles abroad. Moreover, for many decades France has been very supportive of francophone Belgian films. Since most of them are co-produced with French companies as either the majority or minority partner, the films from Wallonia can be described as truly ‘transnational regional’ 4. They are products that even predated the trend of international co-productions in Europe: made in a specific part of Belgium, these films incorporate decisive input from a neighbouring country.

In 2015 a film festival called ‘L’autre cinéma Belge’ – ‘The Other Belgian Cinema’ –was organised in Strasbourg. The festival’s title was a clear indication of the French public’s unfamiliarity with Flemish cinema, but some recent successes had attracted so much attention that a reconsideration of this assumption was called for. The two most prominent Flemish eye-catchers were Rundskop (Bullhead, Michaël R. Roskam, 2011) and The Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix van Groeningen, 2012), which together delivered Belgium nominations for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in two successive years. The language in The Broken Circle Breakdown was Flemish with occasional English (basically for its bluegrass songs). Rundskop, however, not only has very specific Flemish dialects – so local they even required subtitles for viewers in other parts of Flanders – but also includes key francophone characters. Met with enthusiasm, Rundskop boosted the career of its main actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, who soon garnered substantial roles in De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard, 2012), Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015) and A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015). Thanks to the success of Rundskop, Roskam got the chance to shoot the Brooklyn gangster film The Drop (2014), featuring Tom Hardy, Schoenaerts again, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini in his final role. But although the film earned better than decent reviews, he returned to his home country for what is meant to be the second film of a ‘crime trilogy’ set in Belgium. In Le Fidèle (Racer and the Jailbird, 2017), which premiered as an entry in the Venice Film Festival, the French language dominates over the Flemish. Though it is obvious that both Roskam’s films Rundskop and Le Fidèle are linguistically split, I will mainly focus upon different kinds of ‘splits.’ I aim to elucidate why critics encountered more problems in reading (or appreciating) the generic split that characterises Le Fidèle than the cultural split that structures Rundskop.

Rundskop, 2011

Rundskop, 2011

Rundskop: ‘Scorsese’ in Flanders

In one of Le Fidèle’s first scenes, the characters start dancing to a song that is being played in the restaurant they are in, ‘Gigi l’Amoroso’ (1975) by the Egyptian-French singer Dalida, the anthem of the film’s protagonist Gino (‘Gigi’) Vanoirbeek. The song is about a handsome Italian man who, having failed to make it in Hollywood, returns to his native Naples: in the land of ‘rock and twist,’ a Mediterranean lover is out of place. It is tempting to consider this to be a bit of self-mockery on Roskam’s part: shooting a film in America had been a most instructive experience, but as a man from Sint-Truiden, Flanders, he is not rooted in the soil, so to speak, of New York. 5 It is telling that Roskam shot The Drop on the condition that he be given an excellent speech coach to handle the Brooklyn accents for himself and some of the cast. Roskam takes the term ‘body language’ literally. One’s way of speaking determines one’s gestures and movements, and it goes without saying that for Roskam, nothing beats one’s own dialect as a means of expression. In his eyes, coordination between language and physical appearance is key. For his performance as Jacky Vanmarsenille, Schoenaerts had to bulk up and gain some forty pounds of muscle, put on via a diet that included eating no fewer than 3,000 tins of tuna and several hundred chickens. Due to his physical transformation, Schoenaerts-as-Jacky, who only talks when absolutely necessary, speaks quite slowly and with a grunt, which adds to his menacing presence. With his head bowed low, his vacuous eyes, and his staggering walk, he seems to be a ticking time bomb, ready to explode. No need to say that the relatively frequent use of (medium) close-ups have an eerie impact.

Rundskop opens with a relatively lengthy voice-over, the only one in the film, spoken by Roskam himself in Flemish dialect. The text can be roughly translated thus: “Sometimes a dreadful event in the past has happened that makes everybody fall silent; even you yourself will not waste one fucking word on it. It may have been repressed for a long time, but one day someone will cross your path who brings back the memory. One way or another, you will always be fucked”. The voice-over does not address the background of a specific character, but an extensive flashback later in the film make it clear that the event referred to is a tragic incident that had befallen the young Jacky (Robin Valvekens) twenty years earlier. He had had a crush on the francophone Lucia Schepers (Jeanne Remy) but, while searching for her, he accidently witnessed her vicious brother Bruno (David Murgia) masturbating. With the help of some friends, Bruno crushes Jacky’s testicles with a stone. From that moment onwards, Jacky has to be injected with testosterone, so that he grows to look like a tough guy but cannot make love. Diederik Maes (Baudouin Wolwertz), a friend from his youth, knows about the terrible beating but feels pressured to keep his mouth shut about it.

Jacky and Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) will cross paths twenty years later, to their mutual surprise. Jacky accompanies a veterinarian (Frank Lammers) who wants to make a shady deal with the West-Flemish beef trader Marc De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck): through the use of hormones, the cattle will grow bigger in fewer weeks. Diederik happens to belong to the entourage of De Kuyper, but he also has a double role as a (closeted gay) police informer. Jacky, suspicious, advises the veterinarian against the deal. Jacky is correct, for De Kuyper has ordered the killing of a medical officer who had been checking on the manipulation of animals with growth hormones. Although Diederik insists that Jacky has nothing to do with crime, the latter’s farm starts being observed with police cameras anyway, because he has had contact with the ‘hormone-mafia.’ A tragic chain of events is set in motion: once Jacky feels cornered, he, as a man who has never known what love and intimacy are, chooses the path of destruction, which will end in self-destruction: the bullhead becomes a raging bull.

Apart from Schoenaerts’s mesmerizing performance, the film’s other big asset is that it makes absolutely sense that Roskam couched this story, based upon a widely publicized killing that took place in February 1995, as a Martin Scorsese–styled crime drama peopled with well-known types: criminals, handymen, a police informer and a ‘not so bad’ guy who cannot help being dragged along by events. Thematically, Rundskop has many of the familiar Scorsese ingredients: loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Epic movies like Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006) depict the gangsters amidst the crowded streets of New York and Boston. Once viewers see these neighbourhoods, the expressive lingo of the ‘wise guys’ in gangster films starts to resonate for a public of cognoscenti. The ‘flat country’ of Flanders, whose praises had been sung by legendary crooner Jacques Brel, is the polar opposite of a big city, and this rural landscape – with its clouds, its roadside lampposts and out-of-the-way brothels – is emphasised through the use of ravishing inserts. As in a Brooklyn gangster picture, however, the crooked rough diamonds in Rundskop seem to blend perfectly with the surroundings, and this impression is enhanced by their pretty abstruse and ‘unpolished’ spoken dialects. Although Flemish cinema has no tradition of gangster pictures – De zaak Alzheimer (The Memory of a Killer, Erik Van Looy, 2003) is a notable exception – Roskam has both surprisingly and successfully grafted the format of a Scorsese picture onto a specific local setting. 6 It is fairly easy to explain why critics were not as surprised in the case of The Drop: there Roskam had made a crime drama on territory that other directors had already covered with excellence.

Rundskop, 2011

Rundskop, 2011

Clumsy Wallonian ‘Mechanics’

The aspect of Rundskop that least satisfied critics was a subplot about two French-speaking car mechanics, David (Philippe Grand’Henry) and Christian Filippini (Erico Salamone), who hardly understand any Flemish. They are paid first to steal a car and then to make the vehicle disappear. After they discover a bullet hole in the car’s body, they become pretty sure that the car was used for the widely reported murder. Out of annoyance with Flemish ‘nationalists,’ they ignore the request and abandon the car somewhere along the road in its original condition: they patch the bullet hole and, having sold the rims, steal them back and replace them. This plan was not very deliberate in the first place, but the two brothers make complete fools of themselves when each makes contradictory statements during the police interrogation. According to Roskam, for comic relief Shakespearean tragedies often use two quite marginal characters, whose naïve actions make the fate of the protagonists even more irretrievable. Since the technical term for these clumsy characters is ‘mechanic,’ Roskam decided to take this word literally. 7 In an interview, he also identified the two Wallonians as a reprise of R2-D2 and C-3PO from the Star Wars saga. 8 The presence of both these droids in the Star Wars films was in itself an example of a successful cultural graft (from Japan to America), for they were adopted from Akira Kurosawa’s Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), but the transportation of such comic types into Rundskop was rather controversial. 9 R2-D2 and C-3PO may have been bumbling but were lovable. Given the delicacy of the bilingual tensions in Belgium, however, the Flemish Roskam made himself susceptible to the reproach that he has turned Wallonians into objects of ridicule. Given this context, the mechanics’ potential charm is willy-nilly sacrificed to an emphasis on their idiocy.

So far I have argued that Rundskop was favourably received because the successful grafting of the Scorsese format is much more fundamental to the film than the less successful grafting of the supporting characters from Star Wars. By contrast, Le Fidèle earned only a lukewarm critical reception, because the mixture of two genre formats, a crime drama and a love story, was deemed unconvincing. Those critics who were delighted by the crime scenes in the first half were (made) blind, I will claim, to the idea that Roskam’s film is uncompromising in its depiction of love – too uncompromising, according to today’s standards of cinematic love stories.

The Impossibility of a Love Affair

In Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993), eight-year-old Jonah (Ross Malinger) receives a letter from some Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), after he has called in to a radio station to talk about his widowed father Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks). In the letter, Annie proposes to meet Sam at the Empire State Building, alluding to the romantic encounter in An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957). 10 Despite Jonah’s enthusiasm, Sam refuses to take seriously the offer of a meeting in New York. ‘Did you not see Fatal Attraction?’ Sam asks his son, who says he had to go to sleep when it was broadcast on television. This remark is seminal, for it indicates that one can believe in ‘love at first sight’ only if oblivious of Adrian Lyne’s 1987 thriller of adultery. According to this logic, an unknown woman is not only a possible love interest but might also be a vengeful stalker, as Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) turns out to be in Fatal Attraction.

Sleepless in Seattle shows that romantic 1950s-era ideas about love seem impossibly naïve in a post–Fatal Attraction era. The smart device in Ephron’s film is the insertion of a child, to whom the gender tensions intensified by the notoriety of Lyne’s film are unknown. When Jonah goes to New York without permission, stubbornly believing that Annie is The One for his father, Sam heads east as well. He makes the trip not to see Annie but only because he wants to bring his boy back home. When he finds Jonah, he coincidentally happens to meet Annie. The success of Sleepless in Seattle confirms that the old-fashioned romantic film, in which a man and a woman fall in love without further ado, has become hopelessly outdated: a necessary detour is required, and in Ephron’s film all events are mediated via the child. 11 There is no better example illustrating the bankruptcy of the love romance in the contemporary era than Intolerable Cruelty (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2003), a cynical take on the screwball comedy: Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a gold digger and Miles Massey (George Clooney) a divorce lawyer. Each of them is always scheming, for marriage is not an end in itself but only a means for financial enrichment. She weds men in order to ‘nail their ass,’ for ‘divorce means money, and money means independence.’ Massey believes he can outsmart Marilyn, and at one point thinks it profitable to marry her. In Intolerable Cruelty, the battle of the sexes is not driven by love impulses but has become a game of deceit: who plays the final and best trick on whom? In the end, the two become partners in a new television show: America’s Funniest Divorce Videos.

There are basically four options left for a love romance in the twenty-first century. One can flaunt the film’s conventional nature in some sort of contract with the viewer, as if saying: ‘Okay, we all know that love is very complicated and it will not always prevail, but let’s agree for the duration of this film that love does work.’ Or, one can have (one of) the characters fantasize about how wonderful their relationship might have been if both had not gone their own ways, as in La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016): the love affair is then visualized as a dream scenario. Or, third, one stages intimate encounters between unlikely and odd couples, such as the mute janitor and the amphibian creature in The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017) or the ageing recluse and the introvert woman in Teströl és lélekröl (On Body and Soul, Ildikó Enyedi, 2017), to mention two critical successes. Or, fourth, one can make a film (for the arthouse) that carefully disguises that it is rooted in the conventions of a love romance., as I will spell out below.

A Love Romance as a Pastiche of European Art Cinema

Paul T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) leaves its viewers in doubt about the generic status of the film. In the beginning, there is a long take shown in long shot with a man in a blue suit, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who is having a weird telephone conversation about frequent-flyer miles in the back corner of some sort of office. After ending the call, he opens the door and the camera captures the light of daybreak. The camera moves to the street and registers a car accident. Thereafter a man in a van drops a harmonium, a small organ, near the side of the street. A few scenes later, Barry will pick up this harmonium and drag it inside the store he owns. Soon thereafter, there is a shot with blinding sunlight, followed by Barry’s encounter with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). When she goes to Hawaii on a business trip, he buys a ticket himself and discovers her whereabouts so as to arrange a meeting. Meanwhile, he is also being persecuted by four henchmen who want to collect money after Barry had contacted a phone sex hotline. Moreover, it is implied that the unrelenting meddlesomeness of his seven sisters into his life has prevented him from building a wholesome relationship with a woman. Any untactful or condescending remark by one of his sisters can provoke a violent outburst on Barry’s part: he breaks windows; he ruins a bathroom.

The plot does not seem very coherent, and to cap it all, Anderson’s film has some disorienting shots. There are fast pan-movements and over-the-shoulder shots in which the character is so out of focus that he or she is no more than an obstacle within the frame. There are lengthy tracking shots in which the camera follows a character from behind and at one moment, an iris zooms in on hands. At times, Barry is framed as a tiny figure in the gallery of his flat, in an aerobridge, or in the corridors of a hospital. During some of the long takes, the camera seems to explore the space regardless of what Barry is doing. Most remarkable are the sudden interludes filled with psychedelic colours and slightly distorted theme music. All these formal devices problematize any generic classification and give the impression that Punch-Drunk Love is basically a pastiche of some European art movie from the 1960s, a Godard nouvelle vague film or, because of the long takes and the temps mort, a film by Michelangelo Antonioni.

My point is that all these formal devices are meant to lead the viewer astray. Barry is socially awkward and has difficulty in expressing himself, but he is in possession of a harmonium. Music is strategically interlaced into the fabric of the movie: once Barry is in vicinity of the harmonium or of Lena, we hear all sorts of music, ranging from Harry Nilsson’s ‘He Needs Me’ to a cacophony of ambient sounds and violin tones. At the end of Punch-Drunk Love, Barry does not verbally declare his love for Lena, but it suffices for him to take the quite heavy harmonium with him to her apartment. The feelings are mutual: as she visits him at work, he is playing the harmonium and she embraces him. With hindsight, one can say that some of the formal experiments do have a narrative function after all. The psychedelia seems to signify the unforeseen power that love awakens in Barry. Initially he is fearful of the henchmen, but once they hurt Lena he gets so furious that he can successfully shake off the extortionists. The key function of the estranging style, however, is that only in the attire of a (pastiche of a) European art film can Anderson’s film be a ‘pure’ love story at heart, ending in a non-ironic romance. In short, idyllic love in postmodern times is only possible on the condition that it is disguised. In the particular case of Punch-Drunk Love, the formal devices have successfully functioned as a smokescreen: we did not realize the film was a love story until the movie was fairly close to its ending.

Le Fidèle, 2017

Le Fidèle, 2017

Le Fidèle: Unconditional Faith

In general, critics considered the two robbery scenes in Le Fidèle to be the most exciting parts of the film. In the first, Gino and his friends are masked and, using a voice-transformer, Gino gives his instructions to the bank employees in both French and Flemish. The second scene is a highly spectacular armoured truck heist on the motorway, ultimately leading to the group’s arrest in the aftermath. Gino and his comrades will end up, as the English title – ‘Racer and the Jailbird’ – already suggests, in prison. Once Gino is behind bars, about halfway through Le Fidèle, Roskam’s amour noir loses its momentum, according to a majority of critics.

Following my analysis of Punch-Drunk Love I intend to provide an oblique angle to regard this film: the two impressive crime scenes are included in order to throw sand in viewer’s eyes. They represent ‘Gigi’ (as Gino is also known) as a lie and a cheat, and the opening scene sets the tone for him being an ‘eternal’ criminal. The prologue contains the film’s only scene from his childhood. The young kid is in hiding and as soon as it is said that a dog will search for him, he starts running. End of prologue, as if this were the summary of his entire life up to the present, that is, up to the moment he sets eyes on Bénédicte ‘Bibi’ Delhany (Adèle Exarcholpoulos), a professional car driver, at the racetrack. He asks her up front, ‘Are you in a relationship?’ for if so, he will leave her in peace. No, she has no boyfriend, and they will meet in a fortnight at a bridge, but he is asked not to bring any flowers (‘pas de fleurs’). When he arrives, it is drizzling and she is already waiting with an umbrella: romantic scenery par excellence. He will tell Bibi at one point: ‘People always asked me why did you do it, Gino, but I never had an answer. Things always went wrong when I was being honest.’ He makes this sound like some sort of legitimation for keeping his life of crime a secret from her. He starts living at Bibi’s place, but he never shows her his own apartment. Bibi tells him that he is scared of dogs, because they are honest and he is not.

But Gigi is about to change: he really becomes a faithful guy. That his youth friends can persuade him to do one last job, which leads to the arrest of Gigi’s gang, obfuscates his total dedication and loyalty to Bibi. ‘Are you trustworthy?’ she asks him at an early stage. ‘Yes, I am … for you,’ he responds. ‘What is your biggest secret?’ she asks. His straight answer, ‘I am a gangster, I rob banks,’ elicits a laugh from her, perhaps because she thinks it is a joke, but he is speaking the truth. Because of his criminal background, we do not suppose that Gigi takes honesty to be a virtue, but in fact he does in his encounters with Bibi. With the crime scenes still fresh in our minds, we might expect the film’s second half to be a continuation of the first part, and that jailbird Gigi might attempt to escape, but no. After the arrest, there is a cross-cut between Gigi in prison, mirrored via a wall, and Bibi driving in her car, shown via a mirror on the racetrack. These mirrored shots visually underscore that from now onwards, Roskam’s film has taken a turn: crime is marginalised and for its remainder the film will explore only how both Gigi and Bibi, albeit spatially separated, will be absolutely faithful (‘fidèle’) to each other. The second half gives the impression that all the gangster stuff was meant to lure the viewer into believing that the plot will be exciting and spectacular throughout the film, whereas in fact what’s offered is a wilfully ‘banal’ lesson in love: once you love someone, you put unconditional faith in your beloved.

A good indication of Gigi’s absolute confidence in his lover occurs when he is on temporary leave to accompany a pregnant Gigi to the hospital. After kicking a dog that attacked him, he panics and runs away out of fear. Bibi persuades him to surrender to the police, and so he does. At the same time, and this makes Le Fidèle so radically naïve that it really requires the crime scenes as a cover-up, Bibi is as dedicated to Gigi as he is to her. At one point, we are inclined to think that she might choose the handsome businessman Bezne (Kerem Can), who has shown interest in her. Bibi has erroneously promised him a discount, and she apologises to her father Freddy (Eric de Staercke) and her brother Nardo (Thomas Coumans) for her mistake. We then see her driving very fast in her Porsche, and in the next scene, we see her face in close-ups while having sex. We might think that the guy is Bezne, as if she were offering him her body in order to undo the promise, but then it turns out that it is Gigi after all. What’s more, the sex during her ten-minute visit results in her becoming pregnant ­– to her delight, for as Bibi tells her brother, Gigi will be able to endure prison only with the prospect of a child on the horizon. In short, the baby will be her gift of love to him.

Her loyalty to Gigi is emphasised by two particular scenes. First, Bibi has a racing accident, and when a medical officer is seen running to her car, the windowpane shows Gigi’s face in reflection as if she is imagining him coming to her aid. That is, in moments of stress she depends upon him, despite his imprisonment. Second, Bezne tells her that Gigi speaks about Bibi as if she were a saint. He is prepared to risk everything for her, according to Bezne, but is she also prepared to do anything for him? An affirmative answer is postponed until the highly dramatic finale, which is called ‘no flowers’ (pas de fleurs). Bibi has a miscarriage and discovers she has cancer. She contacts an Albanian family who can help Gigi escape to Buenos Aires: her dream of the future, as she had once described it to Gigi, was to be with him in the capitol of Argentina. She is too ill to make it herself, and therefore, the escape plan should only be executed after her demise. As soon as Gigi is liberated, he refuses to go to Buenos Aires and he violently resists his departure successfully, partly thanks to the accidental help of a mean dog. He finds Bibi’s Porsche, which she had given as a reward for the escape plan, and the camera, as if attached to the car’s front bender, moves very fast in a wonderful long take over the streets, both asphalt and cobblestones. It ends near the closed gate of a cemetery: Gigi climbs over it and apparently runs to (the grave of) his deceased lover; end of film. Thus, he does not wish to be free in the city that Bibi had dreamt of as their future home. Rather he simply wants to be faithful to his promise: he was prepared to follow her anywhere, unconditionally. It is only during his ride in the Porsche that their conversation about his biggest secret is repeated, in a voice-off. As we had already heard, Gigi confessed he was a gangster, but only now do we hear what Bibi’s biggest secret is: she claims she is ‘immortal.’ As silly or as bold as this may sound, for a character like Gigi, who believes that love presupposes unconditional faith, this simply has to be true. Of course, his sweetheart will not have misled him, he reasons. And since he once told her that he is willing to follow her anywhere, he will keep his promise. There is no other option than to visit the place where she is buried.

Le Fidèle, 2017

Le Fidèle, 2017

Barefaced Love Romance

For those viewers who consider Le Fidèle a mixture of a crime drama and a heart-rending love story, the film is a disappointment. Roskam’s picture can only be appreciated as being radically split in terms of genre. Much in the vein of the formal devices of Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s great love romance in disguise, the crime scenes in Le Fidèle are no more than a cover-up for deliberately naïve assumptions about love. First, Gigi falls in love with Bibi at first sight, which goes against a huge tradition of films in which love can blossom only if one is prepared to put aside initial prejudices and obstacles. And second, it has been set in the couple’s mind that once you love someone, nothing else matters but absolute devotion to your partner. An additional clue, though missing from the title of the film as internationally released, that Le Fidèle was designed as a barefaced love romance can be found in an intriguing bit of wordplay. Given the bilingual nature of the film, it is perhaps no coincidence that the French word ‘fidèle’ can be converted into the Dutch/Flemish word ‘liefde’ (love).

In an era when the theme of love is met with cynical irony, Roskam strategically introduced several adventurous twists and turns to mask Le Fidèle’s radically clichéd romantic nature. To little avail, for the problem was that critics did not recognize that these twists were functional, but they blamed the film – unjustly, in my opinion – for a lack of focus. Moreover, as Boyd van Hoeij asserts, the characters are predominantly used as pawns in an unbalanced scenario. 12 In the case of Rundskop, by contrast, Roskam made no attempt to rework or mask the generic conventions of a big Apple crime drama but he realized that a change of scenery required a change in the body-talk of the rural characters. Schoenaerts’s bulking presence was a convincing substitute for the combination of cool demeanor and explosive energy of the wise guys in a Scorsese gangster picture, whereas his grunts and local dialect proved to be an equivalent of the noisy boasts of a Joe Pesci character. With the celebrated Rundskop, Roskam successfully adapted the milieu of a New York mob to the flat countryside in Flanders. In the case of Le Fidèle, however, the majority of critics failed to acknowledge that the unconditional love bond between quite orthodox characters necessitated a generic smoke screen in the form of a series of spectacular or melodramatic distractions (robberies, imprisonment, Bibi’s deadly illness, Gigi’s violent escape from his Albanian rescuers). Paradoxically, uncompromising love in a contemporary arthouse film could only be made believable by presenting red herrings – (almost) to the point of ridicule.


  1. Philip Mosley, Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).
  2. Officially, Belgium is trilingual: a community of less than 1 percent speaks German.
  3. The changes were basically due to some perceived cultural differences between the Flemish and the more ‘extraverted’ Dutch people: the representation of nudity was more explicit in the Dutch remake and the female characters were less disapproving towards adultery. See Eduard de Cuelenaere, Stijn Joye & Gertjan Willems, ‘Reframing the Remake: Dutch-Flemish Monolingual Remakes and Their Theoretical and Conceptual Implications,’ Frames Cinema Journal 10 (December 2016): 1-19.
  4. Jamie Steele, ‘Towards a “Transnational Regional” Cinema: The Francophone Belgian Case Study,’ Transnational Cinemas 7, 1 (2016): pp. 50-66.
  5. So far, Roskam’s career has some analogies with that of a Flemish predecessor: Dominique Deruddere made an adaptation of three stories by Charles Bukowski, Crazy Love (1987), which even pleased the writer himself. After this critically acclaimed debut feature, he was given the opportunity to adapt John Fante’s novel Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1989) with Joe Mantegna and Faye Dunaway in the lead roles, but his most successful picture after Crazy Love was a film made once he had returned home: Iedereen beroemd! (Everybody Famous, 2000), the last Belgian picture to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film until Rundskop.
  6. Roskam said that he had always been ‘fascinated by the American gangster films. I love them! I wanted to do one in my own way, on my own soil, with my own background,’ quoted in Geoffrey MacNab, ‘Slab Boy,’ http://www.flandersimage.com/news/detail/slab-boy
  7. Roskam quoted from ‘Rundskop, Making Of’ a documentary by Leen Michiels, https://vimeo.com/100722221
  8. See MacNab, http://www.flandersimage.com/news/detail/slab-boy
  9. ‘Designed as comic relief, they undermine the almost noirish tone of the rest of the film,’ Boyd van Hoeij, ‘Bullhead,’ Variety, February 2011.
  10. Actually, Annie threw the draft away, but Annie’s good friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell), an aficionado of McCarey’s film, sent the letter to Jonah.
  11. In the aftermath of the success of Sleepless in Seattle, Love Affair (Glenn Gordon Caron, 1994) was released. This was a remake of Love Affair (Leo McCarey, 1939), which had inspired McCarey’s own An Affair to Remember. Despite the presence of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, it was a failure, precisely because it lacked a child.
  12. The characters ‘become prisoners of the many twists and turns of the narrative’ and their personalities are ‘constrained’ by the story. Boyd van Hoeij, ‘Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidele): Film Review | Venice 2017,’ Hollywood Reporter 09/09/2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/racer-jailbird-le-fidele-1036725

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is an Assistant Professor in Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He is an author of among others Film Narratology, Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film and its “sequel” Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis.

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