Belgium is well capable of producing very interesting films, but somehow it isn't always easy keeping track of the good ones. It seems we're less experienced in championing our more unique voices and talents, which is probably why I wasn't even aware of Xavier Seron's Death by Death [Je Me Tue à le Dire]. It is, at least on paper, a film that should appeal to me, and that I would've jumped on without any hesitation if I had known about it. It's a good thing then that I still ran into it a good seven years after its initial release because this was pretty hilarious.
When you're promised a Wallon, absurdist comedy, shot in high contrast black and white, it's hard not to think of Man Bites Dog, one of the quintessential Belgian cult films. The two films share obvious commonalities, but don't expect a simple retake of Belvaux's masterpiece. Seron adds his own touches, going for an absurdist style that is not quite as harsh and biting but still has challenging themes and the necessary heart. The outcome of both films may be quite similar, but the road there is a bit different, so it never comes off as a mere carbon copy.
The core themes of the film may be quite serious, but the approach is light and comes with plenty of comedy attached. Some of it is rather dark because of the juxtaposition of the drama and the absurdities, but it never becomes overly malicious or offensive. The film can feel a little detached and haphazard though, with some scenes acting more like separate sketches than parts of a coherent narrative, but that comes with the territory. You probably won't be watching this for the intricate plot anyway, unless you really want to set yourself up for disappointment.
Michel is a manchild who never made much of his life. He's in a frail relationship, his job isn't too envigorating and he has to take care of his ill mother. She was hit by cancer breast cancer, with her health slowly deteriorating after they amputated her breast. Michel's girlfriend isn't happy to spend so much time with her sick mother-in-law, and Michel, somewhat of a hypochondriac, begins to suspect he too has breast cancer. They want to find his mother a rest home where she can be taken care of her properly, but she doesn't want to leave her cats behind.
When done properly, a low-budget film like this can benefit greatly from black and white cinematography. It's an easy way to pimp the visuals and make your film look more attractive, and that's exactly what Death by Death set out to do. The camera work and framing are strong, the cinematography appropriately gritty and the editing feels sharp and to the point, often adding to the comedic effect. Seron isn't reinventing the wheel here, he sticks to what is known to work and there are few visual surprises, but the film does look pretty polished for what is obviously a project that scrambled for funding.
The soundtrack wasn't quite as distinctive as I'd hoped, then again a good comedy gets away with that. It's a somewhat jazzy selection of tracks that are mostly applied as background filler, so you're not just getting ambient sounds and conversation. It's nothing too memorable, nor does it add much to the overall value of the film. The best you can say about it is that the film would've felt a bit empty without it. On the other hand, it never actively bothered me, and it never got in the way of the rest, so in that sense, it's a mission accomplished.
The performances on the other hand are right on point. Rausin was perfectly cast as Michel, his deadpan delivery and his knack for understated physical comedy are exactly what this film needed. The rest of the cast is lovely too, nailing that precarious balance between tragedy, comedy, and deadpan absurdity that their characters require. Fans of Calvaire will be happy to see a small cameo from Berroyer, but he's only in it for a very short while. The same goes for Sam Louwyck, whose face isn't even visible. But you don't need famous actors to have a successful cast, you simply need people who understand what is required from them.
While there is some straightforward plot progression and characters do change/grow throughout the film, most of it seems to be happening between the lines. Individual scenes feel quite random and while nothing appears too otherworldly, the film is clearly set in an alternate reality (or at least inhabited by people with an alternate state of mind) — all the more surprising to see that the dramatic side of the story worked really well. I'm not entirely sure how Seron pulled that off, but I did care for the lead and his odd struggles. A testament to the qualities of the director.
Belgians, and Walloons in particular, have a pretty dark and prickly sense of humor. I don't think it always translates well internationally, but the absurdist streaks in Death By Death are more than clear and obvious enough, so they can't be confused for inappropriate drama. The stylish black and white cinematography, the excellent performances, and the strong dedication to its candidly absurd moments make this a delightful comedy. I'm afraid the film missed its window to make a broad impact, but if you happen upon it, don't miss the opportunity to watch it and maybe do your part in making it a sleeper cult hit.