Sometime it is difficult to dam the flood of Belgian films filling up our multiplexes. Why in the last month I have seen two which, merely due to accident of country of origin, I shall compare despite them really having very little to do with each other. And so The Silence Of Lorna, a slice of miserable realism from the Dardenne Brothers goes up against Jean-Claude Van Damme playing Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD. For extra synchronicity, I saw both at the Price Charles Cinema London’s premier flea pit with a posh new auditorium upstairs.

Fleapit action in the downstairs with The Silence Of Lorna. Like many Dardenne Brothers films it starts with motion, the sound of Lorna’s feet and we are propelled into this story of illegal migrants, organised crime and murder. Not really the plot you’d expect for a piece of Dardenne realism, but then the Dardenne’s have always pushed melodramatic buttons even when you don’t realise it. Les Fils after all was about a man who ended up teaching the boy who murdered his own child. Realism be damned. Even so in this tale of complex immigration scams seems too convoluted for the Dardennes to pass off as a slice of life. Lorna – the immigrant who is supposed to be complicit in killing her junkie Belgian husband so she can marry again – is if anything too sympathetic, and that’s before the phantom pregnancies kick in. Enjoyably played and engaging, it doesn’t ever feel that real, and does not feel like it represents any actual experiences (there is a moment where, to calm down her cold turkeying husband Lorna strips off which ends all semblance of reality). Bottom line, there is no room for gangsters in a Dardenne film.

It would be madness to say there is no room for gangsters in a Jean Claude Van Damme film. There may be less room for gangsters in a film where Jean Claude Van Damme plays himself in some semblance of himself, but then that’s the gag. When the real JCVD is caught up in a post office robbery the irony is that he doesn’t save the day, he is a hostage like everyone else. Unfortunately from this strong premise JCVD goes off in three ways.
-There is a strong hint that JCVD’s lack of action is basically due to jetlag, and if he had been awake enough he would have seen through the plot and disarmed the rubbish gangsters. This undermines the everyman quality.
-For some reason the film contrives to make the police believe that JCVD is actually committing the crime. Whilst funny for a bit, it stretches the credulity to a very fine point.
-The film decides about twenty minutes before the end to give JCVD a too camera monologue about how tough his life is which is moving, funny and totally inappropriate in a heist.

This undermines quite an interesting film which knows where to get its laughs (mainly at Steven Seagal and John Woo) and maintains briefly some interesting tensions. It is tough to think of another star it could be about – where they are the only real star from a small European country to make it in Hollywood (Austria and Schwarzenegger?) and thus THE national treasure. Albeit a tarnished national treasure churning out action crap. All these potentially interesting ideas are fatally sabotaged however by cinematography which favours brown above all colours and isn’t all that keen on focusing. This New Labour cinematography (brown-o-blur-o-vision) makes you give up early on in really looking at the characters and potentially hides some good acting by JCVD in an unattractive muddiness. Here is where the Dardennes could have come in, their shooting style is always crisp and kinetic. Mabrouk El Mechri may have been trying to distinguish his film from the run of the mill JCVD film, he has managed to distinguish it from nearly all modern films by making it look so bad. A bit of a waste for the posh upstairs room.

So is there a Belgian theme running through these movies? Perhaps a sense that Belgian cinema wants to be seen to be more dramatic? In both cases though this urge has pushed films which would thrive on their naturalism to the edge of suspension of disbelief. Not a problem in JCVD’s case, there looking terrible scuppers it. Leaving both JCVD and the Silence Of Lorna as interesting, but somewhat patchy efforts.