In 2004 Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern, two Belgian stand-up comedians, starred in and directed a film called Aaltra. It is a dark-as-you-like story about two fundamentally unlikeable neighbours engaged in a battle of [dim] wits who are both paralysed by a falling tractor. Undeterred by their new-found paralysis, they set off across northern Europe in wheelchairs, one in search of Motocross, the other in search of compensation from the manufacturers of the tractor, Aaltra, based in Finland. It is a journey as much of personality and comedy as it is of geographical relocation. Shot in black and white, hilariously deadpan and staidly serious, it is a tribute to the asphalt humour of Aki Kaurismaki (who appears in the film towards the end), Jim Jarmusch and fictional-reality masters such as Ulrich Seidl. Despite its tight-scriptedness, it is fiction through and through. Even the verite musical number in a roadside bar is jarred from its realism by the incredible vocal gymnastics (seemingly channelling Vic Reeves) of Bouli Lanners singing the greatest version of Sunny ever.
I mention this because a) it’s a fantastic film that deserves a wider audience and b) it is the first thing that came to mind watching Ne Me Quitte Pas (“Don’t Leave Me”), the new documentary from Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden. Both films are Belgian; both feature a couple of, on the surface at least, pathetic characters; both are funny in a way that perhaps shouldn’t always be funny and both involve a journey of one sort of another. The main difference between the two is that where Aaltra has a verite look and feel and is naturalistic to the point of kitchen-sink mundaneness (its surreal moments fall into the “you-couldn’t-make-it-up” category of social-realism), Ne Me Quitte Pas is actually real. In a strange way this fact makes the film even funnier, though lends it a maudlin edge and a pensive quality that a script would not be able to deliver.
Shot over the course of two years, Ne Me Quitte Pas (named, presumably, for the 1959 song of the same name by Belgian chansonnier Jaques Brel) follows Bob, an ageing former Flemish cowboy who hasn’t seen his son in years, and Marcel, a middle-aged Walloon father of three whose wife has just jumped ship. When we first meet Marcel, he is pleading with his wife for just one last carnal adventure, which she duly refuses, setting the tone for much of what we see of Marcel in the next 107 minutes. Bob is introduced through the uncommon filmic medium of the long country walk in the woods. Where most people wander into the woods looking for inspiration or solace, Bob has gone off in search of his favourite tree, which he intends to be the last thing he sees before he kills himself. The next time we see either of the two men, and the first time together, they are back at Marcel’s now empty house. Bob has made his way steadfastly through most of his requisite litre and a half of rum a day diet and Marcel is absolutely hammered. This is the first of the film’s shocking moments. As Marcel is falling about the house, knocking things over, Bob is trying to revive him with a bucket of water that it turns out is rather too hot. And all the while the film-makers keep a safe distant and merely observe. Should they have stepped in? One would hope that were Marcel in any serious danger of hurting himself the film-makers would have put aside artistic concerns in favour of ethical ones.
The next day, and it transpires Marcel and Bob are pretty much on the same wavelength and in the same ditch. They discuss the collapse of their lives and the possibilities of them getting right and both decide that Bob’s plan with the tree is the way forward. They both plan to kill themselves in the woods. How much of this is the alcohol talking and how much of it is the two having given up is not exactly clear. Although this becomes a continual discussion, it is really hard to tell at the this point when either of them is sober, or, as is probably the case, whether either of them is ever sober at all. One thing is certain though, and that is that both men are abject failures. Despite Bob’s seeming acceptance of the situation, and the tacit implication that as the older man he is in possession of not only more wisdom but better coping techniques, the ease with which plans are dropped (even one as straightforward as the suicide) is surprising. When they discover that the tree near which they are both to expire is no longer there, their plans quickly change, as drastically as actually going to the dentist and taking stock of what it means to be addicted. Thus seems to be the fickle nature of the addict’s emotional turmoil, though as we shall see, it’s a fickleness that is by no means final or insurmountable.
It quickly becomes clear that the overriding theme of Ne Me Quitte Pas is alcoholism, and the problems that Marcel is going through with his marriage and Bob’s lack of family contact and startling lack of teeth is entirely down to their problems with the drink. Through all of this, the two are inseparable. There are many long shots of the two of them, sometimes sober, sometimes suffering the effects of the previous night, mostly drunk, sitting at a small wooden table propped against an exposed brick wall, discussing their lives and where they went wrong and what, if anything, can be done.
Most of the film is constructed around close-up to medium shots of the two main characters and their place in the beautiful European surroundings, and the camera is either utterly impassive or merely follows the two of them quietly, functionally. Even later in the film, during the pair’s trip to the dentist, they are filmed in the waiting room from outside the door, and during their procedures, the details of what is going on are spared us. It’s almost as if the camera is unwilling to impinge too far into the lives of the characters outside of their own personalities. In fact, were we not told that Marcel and Bob are real people (to be fair, we aren’t, we merely assume this from the fact that the film is ostensibly a documentary – much like Seidl’s films, if there is an intersection here between reality and fiction, there is no way of figuring out where it is), the film would work as a quiet European character study; there is no input from the camera-man or director, no narration, and indeed the film is even broken up into chapters, black and white inter-titles applying some sort of structure to the low-level melodrama unfolding on screen.
Despite the overall tone and subject matter of the film, it would be quite easy for the film to fall into gloomy bleakness, and it is both to the film-makers’ credit and a sign of the willingness to overcome on the part of the characters that the film is shot through with both a touching humanity (their friendship, despite their own fragile minds and bodies, is steadfast) and a strain of humour (however black) that keeps the film’s emotional head above water, and keeps it consistently entertaining. And despite its consistently ambiguous tone (what will happen to Marcel and Bob when the cameras shut down and they are left tot heir own devices?) and harrowing moments, there are touching rays of light here, that give the film-makers and the audience hope. Ne Me Quitte Pas is a fantastically low-key and emotionally charged film that, like Aaltra, is funny but also packs a real punch.
What all great documentaries should do is show us the smaller stories in the world that would otherwise not be seen; show us characters that would otherwise be forgotten outside of their little worlds; they should care and should provide hope even whilst not shying away from the unpleasant situations life can throw at people, whether through their own actions or some cosmic misalignment; and they should do all of this without judgement and blind pessimism. And, though documentaries don’t give us the answers, they should at least let us know that answers are there. We just need to find them, like Marcel and Bob do. This is not to say however that Ne Me Quitte Pas is a great documentary. Certainly, it is not without its flaws and frustrations. Some will find it unpleasant, some will find it too slow, some might even find it a little ethically worrying, but none of this should get in the way of what is a very accomplished film.
Ne Me Quitte Pas is screening at the BFI London Film Festival in the Official Documentary Competition.
Director/Writer: Sabine Lubbe Bakker/ Niels van Koevorden
Runtime: 107 min