“Never steal a man’s favourite hammer.” That’s the tongue-in-cheek tagline of this feature-length debut from Flemish director Tim Mielants, who is perhaps best known in the UK for helming the entire third series of Peaky Blinders. Here, the flat caps and woollen suits are dispensed with entirely as the action unfolds within the confines of a rural nudist camp.
We meet the eponymous Patrick (Kevin Janssens) in an opening shot from above, as a drone camera homes in on our hero bathing bollock-naked in a lake. It seems like quite the bold beginning, until it quickly becomes clear that nudity will comprise a defining feature of the entire film. The second scene sees Patrick emerging from the water and stumbling towards his workshop; his ungainly gait, bowl-cut hairstyle and reluctance to return the greetings of the campers he passes quickly paint the picture of a man possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum who has no problem baring his buttocks but far greater issues when it comes to baring his soul.
Deftly choreographed scenes quickly reveal that Patrick is the son of ailing campsite owner Rudy (Josse de Pauw), whose tight-fistedness is already prompting the stirrings of a rebellion among the campers, led by bolshie braggart Herman (Pierre Bokma). When Rudy suddenly succumbs to the various maladies plaguing his body, Patrick’s life and that of the campsite are thrown into disarray as a power vacuum threatens to uproot their peaceful existence. To make matters tenfold worse, Patrick has also mislaid his favourite hammer. It’s clear that the disappearance bothers Patrick before his father’s death – during a clandestine (but apparently commonplace) sexual encounter with Herman’s wife Liliane (Ariane Van Vliet), his attention strays to its empty bracket on the wall – but once Rudy has passed, the hammer takes on an altogether deeper significance.
Mielants’ use of the missing hammer as a symbol for Patrick’s grief is immaculately handled, with the first hour of the film in particular showcasing his ability to inject dry wit and off-the-wall humour into situations both mundane and emotional. Bokma and the slightly under-used Jemaine Clement (some of the biggest names in Dutch and Kiwi cinema, respectively) bring their comedic acting chops to the table and help to ramp up the laughter levels, especially as things come to a head in a naked confrontation between Patrick and Herman.
From here, the humour drops away slightly to give centre stage to Patrick’s inner turmoil, but things are never in danger of becoming too serious or sombre – especially given that the flash of a flaccid penis is never more than 30 seconds away. Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography is also deserving of special mention; the arrival of the ambulance come to unsuccessfully save Rudy is poetically introduced, while the man’s funeral forms a stunning tableau among the picturesque Belgian woodland.
But even as the laughs die away somewhat, Mielants ties up the story with a resolution that might be a little predictable but is supremely satisfying all the same. Janssen, normally the purveyor of hunky bad-boy roles, should be commended for his accomplishment in pastures altogether new, while the supporting cast all put in memorable performances to make this quirky comic drama hang together effortlessly. A true gem of the Glasgow Film Festival.