Tuesday, February 28, 2017
out of the picture
by Douglas Messerli
Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine (writers and directors) Aaltra / 2004
My editor Pablo Capra has joked that I find it necessary to include at least one essay in every volume of My Year wherein I refer to Laurel and Hardy, or their progenitors, Bouvard and Pécuchet. Yet I don’t intentionally seek out characters who remind me of these figures, but simply come across them annually in the literature, theater, film, and other genres I cover.
This year, I have come upon the pairing once again, quite accidentally, in watching a Filmstruck Belgium movie of which I’d never before heard, Aaltra, directed by and starring the comedians Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine, the husky de Kervern reminding one of Hardy, with his thinner and leaner neighbor, Delépine, standing in for Laurel. The two, who begin the film by absolutely detesting each other, by necessity pair up to take a road trip from Belgium to Finland, and are strangely described as twins—despite their absolutely different appearances and behaviors—by many along the way.
But they are “twins,” in the sense that both, having begun a mad fight in de Kervern’s Aaltra farm tractor, they have suffered a terrible accident and are now resettled into wheelchairs for life. The comment demonstrates, as do several of the snippets of conversation we overhear on their journey, representative of just how unfeeling the able can be when encountering the disabled. And this is very much a film about being disabled since, after they are attacked and robbed, early in the movie, their long journey via wheelchairs relies on their rolling down the highways between hitchhiking.
Delépine, a motorcycle aficionado, takes in the moto-cross races along the way, where he is sent away from the course by real moto-cross hero, Joël Robert, but later takes advantage of another competitor, who loans him his high-priced cycle for 3 minutes. Delépine takes off to Finland without his “twin,” and stopped only when the owner of cycle and de Kervern take to road via van to stop him.
At other point, the two join a family in a camper, but soon make themselves so odious to the family, that, stopped for a moment by the sea, the family quickly speeds off without them, leaving the two seaside wheelchair-bound men to nearly drown as the tide comes in.
In yet another incident, the two stop by a home to charge up Delépine’s scooter’s battery, while de Kervern joins the family at breakfast, his gargantuan appetite resulting an almost empty larder; the T-shirted brute even eats grabs grub from the childrens’ plates.
The directorial duo set up numerous scenes in a manner somewhat reminiscent to Jacques Tati’s films. One of the best scenes in the film reveals the very absence that the disabled must often feel in society, as the camera, poised on two local bar-goers, speaking in a kind of bigoted gibberish, talk, a hand, from time to time, appearing from below to grab a pint. Their lives, so to speak, often put them out of the picture.
When they finally find a small shed that actually houses the Aaltra metal works; the barbarians are at the gates. They open the door only to discover a large roomful of similarly wheelchair-bound workers. The head executive, played by the famed Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, greets them as friends, offering them jobs. Now, they will truly be bound together for the rest of their lives!
This wonderful dark comedy was a true discovery, one I intend to visit again and again.
Los Angeles, February 28, 2017