After a sudden quality surge during the mid 00s, Belgian cinema has settled back into a more quiet, comfortable lull. A decent film will surface from time to time, but the raw outburst of young, brash talent is well behind us. Luckily this period has left a permanent mark on our film industry, giving talented directors more and broader opportunities to put forward unique and unconventional films. Enter Tim Mielants' De Patrick, a film that does its very best to stay extremely uncomfortable from start to finish.
Belgium is best known for its social dramas, thanks to the efforts of the Dardenne brothers. But when looking towards genre and cult cinema, you'll see a bunch of films emerging that share a very peculiar sense of dark, deadpan and uncomfortable comedy. Features like Ex Drummer, The Ordeal and Man Bites Dog are prime examples, though the most telling one is no doubt In de Gloria's Boomerang skit, which went viral after people assumed it was an actual broadcast. De Patrick fits in snugly with this group of films.
That is to say, it shares a very similar approach to comedy. I wouldn't want to directly compare De Patrick to these films, as execution and genre focus between these films is quite different, but I would definitely recommend it to people who've enjoyed the films listed above. It's a little difficult to explain what De Patrick is exactly about though, as the film seems hellbent on keeping that hidden from its audience for most of its running time. Even then it's a pretty confusing affair that seems more interested in setting up a puzzling experience rather than a coherent plot or transparent themes. Mind you, that's anything but a negative in my book, but it's sure to piss off some people expecting a more traditional narrative.
The plot itself is simple enough, but in the end it's little more than an excuse to spend some time with the titular character. A somewhat recluse figure that isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but has managed to carve out a little niche for himself where he can live a happy life. He still bunks with his parents, who are running a camping site for nudists, spending his days working on furniture he designed himself. While he behaves calm and composed, Patrick is a boiling kettle of emotions that can barely contain the pressure building up inside of him. When his dad dies and leaves the camping site in his care, his thick exterior slowly starts to crumble. To add insult to injury, someone stole his hammer. I know that sounds like a strange thing to add, but it is in fact the one driving force of the plot.
While there is plenty of weirdness embedded in characters and setting alone, the styling here is essential in cultivating the uncomfortable mood. Stark, often sluggish camera work gives the film a very loaded atmosphere. The camera rarely tracks the characters, but seems to be wandering around on a path of its own, with characters crisscrossing its trajectory randomly. It's certainly not the first film to do this, but it's not an obvious match for what is basically a quirky dramady. Still, the effect is delightful and helps to shape the identity of the film.
The soundtrack and sound effects too are detrimental to the atmosphere. For one, they help to locate the characters when they're not in the audience's field of vision, which is helpful when the camera is off on another one of its little adventures. Some filtered and exaggerated sound effects make it a little easier to glimpse behind Patrick's strict facade while also contributing royally to the atmosphere of the film. And though the soundtrack itself is pretty subdued, there are moments where it suddenly jumps forward, demanding attention and giving direction to scenes. If anything, Mielants is perfectly in control of the styling.
As for the casting, no complaints there. Kevin Janssens is hardly recognizable, having gained a ton of weight for this part, transforming into a goofy but likable outcast. Maybe Janssens isn't the most talented Belgian actor out there, but he has been making some very smart choices, and he is quickly establishing himself as an actual trigger to watch a film. The rest of the cast is on point too, with notable roles for Pierre Bokma, Jan Bijvoet and Hannah Hoekstra. The most surprising name on the roster is Jemaine Clement though, a name comedy fans are sure to recognize. His part is rather small, but still good for a couple of healthy chuckles.
Mielants based the film on his childhood memories, when his parents took him along to a camping site for nudists. It's a somewhat challenging, but also very rewarding location for a feature film. Mielants doesn't bat an eye and simply let his camera do the talking. If you take offense at nudity, this film is simply not for you. There are more on-screen penises than there are fingers on a set of hands, and since most visitors of the camping site aren't really in their prime anymore, bodies look shamelessly saggy and wrinkled. It's nice that the film doesn't make a big deal of it though. Apart from a well-placed guitar during one of Clement's scenes (a rather Simpsonesque moment) it's just what you'd expect to see in a place like that.
De Patrick isn't a film with wide appeal, even though its release in Belgium was surprisingly ambitious. Mielants' style is very definite and precise, but with a lack of focus on plot, some tough stylistic choices and a somewhat impenetrable sense of humor this is a film that will mostly appeal to a limited niche. But don't let that deter you. De Patrick has a very interesting look, sports a great soundtrack, isn't childish about its subject matter and is mysterious, darkly funny and somewhat baffling throughout. It's a film by a director who knows what he wants and isn't willing to compromise on that vision. Mielants is an asset for Belgian cinema, hopefully this isn't just a one-off, because we could really use more directors like him.