De Patrick (2019).

As a new resident of The Netherlands, one of the things I’ve been taking advantage of is the crop of small films I’d never get to see if I were stateside. This small, marshy nation has a large feature industry for a small country, to be sure, but the chance that most of its film product would be exported to Anglophone art-houses would next be to nil. In the future I hope to be able to provide a regular glimpse at some of the excellent work being made on the continent, films you’d either never hear about or would be discouraged from watching by the high barrier to entry.

Tim Mielants’ De Patrick (or just Patrick as it’s listed on IMDB) is one such film. This is a Belgian product, shot in the Ardennes forest by a primarily Belgian cast and crew. Director Mielants is primarily known to English-speaking audiences as a TV guy, having done a bunch of work on Peaky Blinders for the BBC, The Terror for AMC, and Legion for FX. This is his first feature, and the decision to shoot back home was a wise one – he (and co-writer Benjamin Spengers) are able to shoot a film which Hollywood would’ve smothered in its sleep on account of the fact that all the leads are 100% nude for the entire film.

The set-up here is almost Coen-esque. The title character is the 39-year-old son of the elderly proprietors of a naturist campsite in the Ardennes, which hosts a small community of regulars who are up in each other’s business all the time. There are rivalries between various RV homes, some who think the camp can be run better and others who are arguing for nicer sites on the compound. You might already infer this, but the tone is darkly comic which is why I thought of Joel and Ethan immediately. Patrick the camp handyman comes across as a beefy child, a dense man-boy who seems a step behind the scheming folks around him.

Herman and Liliane, the well-heeled de facto “presidents” of the community, are trying to wrest leadership from Patrick’s parents by swinging public sentiment against their ability to keep the lights on. Also, Liliane is stepping out on Herman with Patrick, whom she boffs on the reg (with Patrick looking dazedly at the ceiling as she rides him, totally detached from coitus). Patrick’s father succumbs to a wasting respiratory disease just as the tide is turning against him, and the son inherits the campsite with little vision of what to do with it.

Compounding Patrick’s bad day, a hammer goes missing from his work shed. It’s not simply a hammer however, it’s one of five, in an array of cascading sizes mounted at the center of his kit. Patrick isn’t just the handyman, he’s also a woodworking savant, the hammer an extension of his arm. What he lacks in the ability to communicate with the world, he seems to make up for in his ability to express some inner poetry through carpentry.

Patrick has profound disbelief and grief over losing the metal mallet but shows next to no reaction about his father dying in the previous scene. He appears either on the cognitive spectrum, or perhaps deadened to the world. The film never offers any easy answers, just a well-played (and underwritten) performance by lead actor Kevin Janssens. Apparently he’s something of a tough-guy heartthrob in Belgium but went method and put on close to 50 pounds to fit the part of a meaty lump. There are those quiet performances where the actors eschew vulnerability to project sturdiness and mystery (see Ryan Gosling in Drive), and then there are those quiet performances which are impenetrable clusterfucks (see Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives). I would put Janssens’ creation of Patrick in the middle, giving enough ground to see that the man is mostly a mystery to himself, whilst holding back some essential part of himself out of fear of getting wounded.

That absconded-with hammer immediately pays off narratively, as it’s used to force open the management office and break the lock on the cash box. You see? The owners are asleep at the wheel, and it’s obvious that Herman and Liliane know better how to run the site.

I should mention almost as a nonsequitur that Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement pops up as a self-absorbed rock star named Dustin Apollo, checking into the camp to take a break from the hectic life of a huge star. The character is a nonsequitur as well, coming out of left field and serving little to move the plot other than to inject some of his patented New Zealand comic timing to the tableau. What’s important about Clement’s addition is that he brings along a girlfriend, Nathalie, a groupie looking for something more concrete from the flaky celebrity. She figures into the story as she gets acquainted with Patrick, finding sympathy in his loss and confusion.

Patrick goes on a quest from camper to camper, conducting his own methodical Poirot investigation into who took his hammer. This one guy borrowed it without asking… that one took it for something else and misplaced it… and that other guy never saw it after Monday. Patrick clamps down with a determination not seen before, and Nathalie wonders if it’s easier for him to get tied up in knots about something he can actually do something about rather than engage in the vast reservoir of loss around death.

There’s an inspired set-piece where Patrick confronts Herman, whom he’s positive is responsible for both the hammer and the break-in. Patrick doesn’t hold anything back in his interrogation, accusing the cuckolded spouse of stealing, and they get to throwing down. Watching two naked men toss each other around brutally yet awkwardly conjures a feckless version of Viggo Mortensen’s nude fight in Eastern Promises, or a less sexually-charged version of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s tussle in Women in Love. We are through the looking glass when it comes to the male physique as either a sex object or a font of Greco-Roman reverence.

I’m not going to spoil the ending other than to say that the perpetrator of Hammergate is not any of the suspects you’ve been expecting, which is a let-down. However, that choice on the part of the creators does tie into Patrick’s family dynamic; it makes a degree of sense, but that’s all I’ll say on the matter in case you happen to find yourself in a Brussels cinema with 97 minutes to spare.

I’d like to restate how bold I think it is to choose a nudist camp as the setting, and to live with that choice without ever shying away from it. I know that American film culture is famously prudish, but even continental films don’t tend to show this much skin – beautiful, sagging, tobacco-tanned, tight, you name it. These are all experienced repertory actors from Belgium and Holland and they fully commit to being bare-assed without even letting on to being bashful. I read one Belgian comment that said distinguished actor Pierre Bokma (Herman) being naked through an entire film was like seeing Tom Hanks in the altogether.

As much as De Patrick doesn’t necessarily do a ton of new things, I give Tim Mielants a lot of credit for overlaying the framework of an Agatha Christie mystery onto a Jim Jarmusch film. Making a whole as good as the sum of its parts is a great achievement these days, and when I make reference to De Patrick being in an art-house theater it’s not because it reinvents the form, or upends long-held notions about cinema. This film does its job well, and it’s in a pair of foreign languages (French and Flemish) – enough to earn it a spot at Film Forum in Manhattan for instance. I recommend you get a hold of this when it’s eventually available on digital because it’s a window into the culture of filmmaking in Western Europe, and because it features a breakout performance by an actor like Kevin Janssens, the kind of guy who would surely have graduated to Game of Thrones if this had been shot three years ago.

Film ‘89 Verdict – 7.5/10

De Patrick is on release in Belgium and the Netherlands but is lacking a digital release date at the time of this review.