(Film Movement Series; Delépine et K/Vern)
Some films have the ability to leave you in awe while others are in possession of something capable of driving you mad. Delépine and Kervern’s directorial debut, the nebulously titled Aaltra, is in full possession of both.
Described as a darkly comic road movie, this French-Belgium co-production came and went from European arthouses, collecting warm if largely pedestrian praise from native critics, ultimately landing on our shores only after New York City’s Film Movement launched their e-commerce distribution model in 2003.
The relative obscurity that it has existed in is unfortunate, first and foremost because discerning audiences deserve to see it but, furthermore, because American independent filmmakers could learn a lot from its style and structure.
Aaltra‘s plot seems tailor-made for the sort of broad bromantic comedies that Tinseltown loves to turn out like a cheap escort…at least on paper. To wit: After finding out that his neighbor’s lazy farmhand Gus (the hulking, disheveled de Kervern, credited here as K/Vern) has been screwing his wife, a nerdy motorbike enthusiast and failing company man (French funnyman Benoît Delépine) speeds out into the fields and instigates a haphazard fistfight.
As the two men wrestle, their bodies land in the gaping maw of Gus’s combine harvester. The machine swallows them up, leaving each of them paralyzed below the waist. After realizing that they are both F.U.B.A.R., they begrudgingly decide to team up to take on the corporate bigwigs at Aaltra, the manufacturer of the offending combine.
Naturally, a sort of stand-offish camaraderie develops between the two, one that would be easy to picture drowning in saccharine if placed within the wrong hands. Fortunately for us, Delépine and Kervern are not the wrong hands and Aaltra is not that sort of movie.
Eschewing the buddy comedy formula in favor of something at once more realistic and more surreal than anything most of us are used to, pic presents us with the kind of story that often plays out among modern men in the real world; emotions are stifled, feelings left unexpressed and base urges rule supreme.
Instead of the faux-meditative scene that would find Delépine’s Ben confiding in Gus about the disintegration of his marriage and the laughably awkward details of his sex life, Delépine and Kervern never speak of Gus’s covetous tryst or Ben’s wife at all.
This left quite the impression on me when first I saw it since it flies in the face of our collective understanding of narrative composition. And it’s this kind of ultra-realistic detail (or lack thereof) that gives Aaltra its charm. Of course Ben and Gus never engage in some contrived heart-to-heart about marriage, infidelity or divorce.
Why bother? No use squabbling about yesterday when tomorrow is gonna be lousy enough. After all, each is now half a man in their own eyes, but together they form one mean son of a bitch.
Those seeking an escape from the hypostatized universe of Hollywood cinema would do well to seek this one out. It provides viewers with a slightly askew realism that hasn’t been seen since Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessan or, at least, Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (fitting that Kaurismäki should cameo in Aaltra‘s denouement).
There is much of the Theater of Cruelty on display, almost all of it more comical than anything Alejandro Jodorowsky ever committed to celluloid (save, perhaps, for select bits of Fando y Lis). From the way the male nurse fucks with them once he’s confirmed that they cannot feel their legs to Ben’s surreptitious theft of a barfly’s drink when he’s not looking.
There is also something of American vintage here in the particular physical comedy that both men employ. Gus’s slow ascension while lying in an automatic hospital bed feels like it was engineered to be an homage to the age of Keaton and Chaplin. And that’s to say nothing of Ben’s Harold Lloyd-worthy pratfalls.
We know from early on that Aaltra‘s journey will have its end in Finland, so it is appropriate that our dyspeptic duo manage to illustrate that country’s aversion to arbitrary loquaciousness. When an old sod at a pub talks relentlessly at a laconic patron, going on and on about something as seemingly mundane as air conditioning in a tractor, we can feel the collective pain of the Finns.
Subtle touches of physical and visual humor soon give way to an extremity that’s every bit as amusing and confounding. The flick is especially effective at juxtaposing the average person’s veneer of samaritanism with the patina of short-tempered prejudice simmering under the surface.
This paradox is first displayed in a worker’s removal of Ben and Gus from a motocross track. “You guys can’t stay here,” he exclaims. “It kills the dream.”
Just when you might begin to feel pity for them, pic reminds us how wrong that sentiment would be. As it turns out, these two scabrous individuals work well together, effortlessly pulling grift after grift on the proud fools in their path. These are guys who think nothing of stealing popcorn from a little boy and threatening to slit his throat if he snitches.
Their primary victims: Every bourgeois idiot who dares to count themselves as well-meaning do-gooders when, in reality, they treat the handicapped as anything but equal. Their encounter with a British motocross star and grade A wank (Jason Flemyng) is almost as riotous as the psychological havoc they wreak on an uptight German couple (Brrring! Brrring!).
It’s the wealthy and entitled Brit who gets one of the flick’s most quotable lines: “It’s people like you that give fucking people in wheelchairs a bad fucking name!” This emerges as one of the only lines worth mentioning in a film whose economy with the verbal gives every line weight.
Like all of the best comedies, Aaltra is also a tragedy, one that opts to impress its poignancy through stark and random images and penetrating silences instead of overwrought pathos.
The beach sequence, featured prominently in the DVD release’s artwork, leaves an indelible impression not only for its blackly comic tableau but, also, the austere beauty of the same. No other director has ever made such effective use of the Lord’s prayer, certainly not in such a perfectly literate fashion.
One of the funniest scenes in the entire picture is also one of its most tense. A stocky Finn with a greasy pompadour sings a flamboyant rendition of Bobby Hebb’s R & B classic “Sunny” while our cripples sit back eating sausage and a room full of mean-looking skinheads seethe.
It’s in moments like this that Delépine and Kervern’s message comes through loud and clear: You need not fear for the well-being of these antagonistic protagonists, but you should worry about everyone else around them.
According to IMDB, Aaltra’s worldwide box office amounted to little more than $6,000 in sales. This may be discouraging if film fans equate financial success with artistic success. Personally, I choose not to.
Part of me believes that true art has no monetary value, only a kind of spiritual one. But as a gambling man, my money’s on this one finding the audience it deserves on streaming platforms.
As for its directors, they have gone on to make a number of unique projects including their Aaltra follow-up Avida. It’s my intention to check that one out sooner than later. I have it on good authority that it made at least seven gs.—Bob Freville