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A frank and funny romantic comedy set in Antwerp, filmed in a quirkily inventive style, Madly in Love has a lot to say about human relationships. It focuses on the four women of the Miller family: teen daughter Eva, her mother Judith, aunt Barbara and older half-sister Michelle, as they work their way through the chaos called love. The result is a roller coaster ride of first crushes, lust, affairs, baby fever, and indestructible love. The four women are beautiful, courageous and sensible, but are also sometimes a bit lost. Can their male counterparts handle this dangerous cocktail of determination and female hormones? Written by
Palm Springs Internation Film Festival
It's always a thankless task playing opening night at a film festival as the presence of high profile attendees not necessarily narrowly associated with the movie industry per see demands the selection of a crowd pleaser which, ironically, immediately assures the wrath of such event's familiar assembly of art-house aficionados who consider such fare as commercial pandering and beneath them. Hence the hostile response, at least from those that went on record about it, greeting this year's opening film at Ghent, the eagerly awaited third directorial effort by respected actress Hilde Van Mieghem following THE KISS and LOVE BELONGS TO EVERYONE. Renowned for her fearless exploring of human nature's darker side as both thespian and filmmaker, she has delivered her lightest work to date with SMOORVERLIEFD which could translate as Head Over Heels.
Released theatrically to domestic audiences mere weeks after Jan Verheyen's ZOT VAN A, it was bound to draw comparison as both are Antwerp-set rom coms co-financed by commercial TV station VTM (another thorn in the eye of "serious" critics) but thankfully that's all they cover in terms of common ground. Hollywood's bread and butter, the romantic comedy is still a genre left largely unexplored by Belgian cinema, occasional attempts like Christophe Van Rompaey's magnificent MOSCOW, BELGIUM or Miel Van Hoogenbemt's A PERFECT MATCH playing more like barbed and bittersweet variations on the form rather than its unfettered essence. By far the most accomplished emulation of the SEX AND THE CITY girl power template yet, no mean feat considering even its movie versions had trouble recapturing the TV show magic, SMOORVERLIEFD gets the recipe absolutely right.
Drawing extensive inspiration from her own status as a feminist single mom, Van Mieghem studies the dynamics within an all female household made up of successful actress of stage and screen Judith Miller (Veerle Dobbelaere), her sister Barbara (Wine Dierickx) and adopted daughter Michelle (Marie Vinck), observed in wry ahead of her years voice over by Judith's teen daughter Eva, a promising debut performance by Aline Vanhulle. An incurable romantic whose moonlit, starry-skied fantasies are amusingly given literal visualization, prompting a well-sustained employment of distancing artifice throughout, Judith has the Hollywood heroine's propensity of forever falling for the wrong man, be it pompous poet Bob (national icon Jan Decleir doing a thinly veiled send-up of the late Hugo Claus) or loudmouth Dutch movie director Theo, played with self-deprecating sliminess by Huub Stapel, now well past his matinée idol years of the Dick Maas blockbusters THE LIFT and AMSTERDAMNED.
With each inevitable break-up, she pours out her heart to ex-husband Bert (Koen De Bouw), oblivious of course that he's still the one she should be sharing her life with. The much more down to earth Barbara focuses almost exclusively on an attempted pregnancy that fails to materialize to keep from worrying about her unsatisfying love life with longtime boyfriend Matthias (hunky Kevin Janssens whose being cast against type really allows him to shine as an actor) until she has an eye-opening fling with fellow teacher Johan (lovable lug Koen De Graeve in another bit of surprise casting) which threatens to turn into a full blown affair. Michelle almost refreshingly finds little time to occupy herself with matters of the heart as she's trying to establish herself as an architect at natural dad Bert's firm though he still sees her (literally, another nice touch) as the six-year old he gave up to Judith for adoption in the wake of his first wife's death. Besides, she has always had a crush on her aunt's long-suffering significant other...
Apart from the occasional line of dialog that's too clever for its own good, squarely falling into the category of things one wishes one could have thought of to defuse potentially embarrassing situations rather than the way even people of above average intelligence actually say (still with me ?), SMOORVERLIEFD turned out smooth and streamlined, directed with great confidence and just the right lightness of touch the material demands. Although the genre seems to demand a shift in tone for the third act nowadays, with characters having to pay for callous behavior that got all the laughs during the first hour, the movie at least sidesteps the heart-wrenching displays that disfigure too many of its stateside counterparts thanks to matter of fact writing that doesn't feel the need to tie up all loose ends, not to mention outstanding work by the lead actresses.
The always intriguing Dobbelaere, best known to international audiences for playing the frequently nude retarded girl in Alex van Warmerdam's surreal THE NORTHERNERS, accomplishes the considerable feat of making such a self-possessed character not only tolerable but downright lovable, generously allowing less seasoned co-stars to shine whenever Judith's not taking center stage. Following breakout performances in Felix Van Groeningen's WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE (another offbeat rom com) and Erik Van Looy's star-studded box office blast LOFT, the delightful Dierickx benefits most of what must have been a friendly and sisterly conspiratorial shooting period, befuddled Barbara being focus of film's funniest scenes such as noted sexologist Bo Coolsaet giving personal post one night stand advice from a shop window TV screen (shades of BRIDGET JONES) or a veiled Turkish momma's candid (subtitled) response to her cries of being a bad person for carrying on an affair.
Inspired camera wizardry by Jan Rubens and Wim Temmerman, both of whom hold extensive credits in French cinema more traditionally linked with visual sophistication than the poor backwards Belgian cousin, ironically succeeds to imbue the over-exposed Antwerp locations with the ambiance and atmosphere Verheyen's overblown ode to product placement was striving for, effortlessly generating a sense of wonder not a million miles removed from Woody Allen's love letters to the isle of Manhattan. Hitting theaters just before Christmas, SMOORVERLIEFD proves this year's feel good flick among the local produce, positive word of mouth hopefully translating into packed picture palaces and critics be damned !
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