Zillion Review – A Frantic, True-ish Story About Sex, Drugs, and Techno in a Nineties Antwerp Nightclub

A story that will be familiar with Belgians and some Europeans, the rise and fall of entrepreneur Frank Verstraeten and his late nineties early aughts Antwerp techno haven Zillion, is one that has a strong cinematic legacy in other films such as both versions of Scarface. This (mostly) true film documents the hubris of a man who believed that he was smarter than everyone around him, forged questionable alliances, and was on his way to a crash sooner than he believed himself capable. There are echoes of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street but instead of Ponzi schemes, Zillion is about sex, drugs, and techno. Three things that seem to have gone hand in hand for a long time.

Frank Verstraeten (Jonas Vermeulen) is a diminutive computer genius whose family has always lived life in the ethical grey area. His father hanged himself to avoid fiscal fraud charges, and his mother Marleen (Barbara Sarafian) encourages Frank to smuggle computer chips into the country and thinks that “life’s too short to pay taxes.” Frank starts up a business called InfoBrix creating custom computers from his mother’s ice cream parlour. Soon he is in business with the sleazebag King of Porn Dennis Black Magic – real name Dennis Burkas (Matteo Simoni) laundering his illegal money through Dennis’ porn operation. Frank attracts the attention of a local tax agent, Nico Tackaert (Frank Vercruyssen) who he is originally able to out manoeuvre.

Bullied all his life for his stature, Frank Verstraeten has something to prove; that he’s the smartest person in the room, and he belongs on the biggest stage available When he is denied entrance to the biggest nightclub in Antwerp, The Carré, he becomes obsessed with creating a club that is bigger and better.

The money that he has been giving to Dennis pays off for both of them. Dennis wins porn awards and as a reward finally gets Frank into The Carré where he spots the 1997 Miss Belgium*, Vanessa Goossens (Charlotte Timmers). He is smitten by the renowned beauty and after being shoved away by Vanessa’s father and manager and then kicked out of the club and beaten by security, he is determined he will have both Vanessa and will run the other club out of business.

Frank’s fortunes rise and dip. His InfoBrix business is raided just as he has decided to buy a warehouse to convert into what will become Zillion. In the raid his accounts are frozen and the police pressure Dennis to hand over the dirt on Frank. Dennis holds steadfast and is sent to prison for just under a year during which time Frank finds some of his assets quite literally unfrozen (Marleen was hiding cash in her ice cream pans) and Zillion is underway.

Entering what seems like an airtight deal with the local mayor over the space where the club will be, the first-person narration saying, “That’s what was great about the nineties you could make people believe anything,” Frank’s fortunes are on the rise. With Dennis about to be released from prison and using all his connections to get the big names at the opening, Zillion is a massive hit with its computer-controlled lasers and intuitive software running everything from the bar to the downstairs section where the less salubrious activities are going on. Dennis and his connections also manage to remove the one obstacle Frank has to Vanessa via some incriminating evidence on her father.

Frank is the kind of man for whom enough is never enough. He’s also a man so involved in his myth making that he can’t, or won’t, see what is happening right under his nose. Dennis’ connections in prison were Albanian crime families. They are running successful drug smuggling, gun smuggling and prostitution rackets through the club. The legal money goes out the front door, the illegal money goes through the back. When Frank gets in trouble with the law for city violations, he opens the sex club Zundays to which he invites local politicians, policemen, and judges. Certain things get swept under the carpet to protect reputations, but he can’t control Dennis, the Albanians, or even Vanessa and the one person he thought he always could, his mother.

Zillion is a kinetic crime drama that is handsomely shot and acted. Jonas Vermeulen is first-rate as Frank a man bound to be hoist on his own petard. Barbara Sarafian is brilliant as his resilient, jealous, and suspicious mother, Marleen. Although Matteo Simoni brings comic flair to the roll of Dennis, it isn’t long before the audience stops laughing when they realise that he has a predilection for under-age girls. Zillion screams excess and eurotrash, it also loudly pronounces that no-one should feel sorry for Frank, in fact when he is getting the crap beaten out of him, a small part of the audience might feel he deserves it. After all, this is a guy who took a woman car bungee jumping to impress her.

Robin Pront’s Flemish film is an effective cinematic car crash which you need to rubber-neck. There are absurd moments, moments that are genuinely scathing, others that speak to just how much the establishment makes people like Frank Verstraeten as much as they’d love to think they have clean hands. Frank Verstraeten may have been the little man who dreamed big and for a brief moment really made it, but he’s also a repulsive character with few redeeming features. Watching him fall is as satisfying a spectacle as the film with its propulsive soundtrack, beautifully choreographed set pieces in clubs and the dingier parts of Frank’s world. Zillion is vividly shot, perfectly paced true crime cinema with the added bonus of knowing that although Frank Verstraeten wasn’t harshly punished by the law, he ended up living out of his beloved spotlight and being just some guy who was once famous from Meise. 

*Frank Verstraeten was involved with a real ex-Miss Belgium, Briggita Callens, but she threatened to sue the filmmakers if they used her name.

Director: Robin Pront

Cast: Ward Kerremans, Matteo Simoni, Charlotte Timmers

Writers: Kevin Meul, Robin Pront

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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