Wednesday, May 15, 2013

‘Come as You Are’ (2011) directed by Geoffrey Enthoven

How about this for a pitch? Three horny young guys sneak away from their parents to go on a road trip.  Their destination?  A mythical heavenly bordello where they hope to all lose their virginities. The twist? Philip (Robrecht Vanden Thoren) is paralysed from the neck down, Jozef (Tom Audanaert) is almost entirely blind and Lars (Gilles De Schryver) is dying of an inoperable brain tumour and is confined to a wheelchair.  It's a pretty compelling spin on the coming-of-age road movie template.

Come as You Are (original title 'Hasta La Vista') occupies similar territory to both The Sessions and Untouchable, both of which are relatively recent releases (at least in the UK).  These  films share multiple elements, almost enough to add up to a new subgenre: the bittersweet disabled sex comedy.  It’s already proved fertile ground, a way to allow directors and writers to expose the relatively unseen world of disability and to exploit the situation's potential as dramatic metaphor.

Though the three leads in Come as You Are are in their early twenties, at the opening of the film they're treated like children.  Depressingly, this process of infantilisation initially seems inescapable.  Philip, who is tetraplegic, relies on his parents to feed him, dress him, put him to bed and wash him.  Though all the character's parents are ever less than sympathetic, we quickly see that the attention they lavish on their children is beginning to suffocate them.  All three friends sense that they're wearing straitjackets, and all ache for a taste of adult freedom.  Lars’ terminal illness lights a fire under them - time is running out - and how better to define themselves as adults than getting laid?

From left to right, Lars (Gilles de Schryver), Philip (Robrecht Vanden Thoren) and Jozef (Tom Audenaert)
Crucially, this depiction of disabled life feels honest and accurate.  The film takes pains to highlight both the ways in which our leads overcome their disabilities and the myriad frustrations and inconveniences they experience every single day.  Cleverly, Enthoven sets much of the first act of the film within the character’s houses.  Most of these opening scenes feature them interrupting conversations or private moments, or even just as an omnipresent background presence.  They’re well meaning, but this and the architecture of the houses creates a suffocating atmosphere.  

Conversely, after they escape to the road Enthoven switches to wide shots of landscapes: glistening seas, rolling fields, open starry skies and sun-dappled woodlands - the natural world bringing exhilarating liberation.   It's interesting to note how the colour palette evolves throughout the film, beginning with overcast, flat strip lighting and gradually increasing in saturation as our characters get closer to their destination.

All of this underlines the division between the cold sterility of interiors, which are conflated with the restrictive nature of the wheelchairs, and the fleshy, tactile pleasures of the outside world.  So, appropriately, the first shots of the film are of breasts bouncing along a beach, lasciviously observed by Peter from a balcony.  But you quickly note that these are breasts shot with a conscious, horny male gaze; they’re totally divorced from their owner - disembodied objects of desire.

Here’s where I have a slight problem with the film.  The character’s desire to lose their virginities is presented as a worthwhile goal in and of itself.  Who they lose them is entirely irrelevant.  There’s evidence that this is a conscious directorial choice, the sex workers we meet later on are entirely personality-free, so much so that some cases they don't even warrant having all their speech subtitled, about as clear a signal a film can send that these people aren't worth our attention.  So, as far as the characters and audience are concerned they are ‘simply’ walking vaginas for the leads to penetrate, thus proving their adulthood and masculinity and achieving what the film paints as a literal spiritual fulfilment

This disconnect between love and sex bothers me a bit.  It’s right at the centre of the film, and though there are a few notable mitigating elements that ease the morality of the situation, the two wheelchair bound leads achieve spiritual and physical fulfilment through the physical act of sex rather than through any true emotional development.  

Fortunately, there is one notable, strong female character at the centre of this film, Claude (Isabelle de Hertogh).  She’s a combination driver/nurse/bodyguard/mother/lover for our leads, an unvarnished woman who takes no shit from her occasionally petulant and childish charges.  Without her presence the film would be toast.  She provides the necessary counterbalance to the adolescent lust that propels the plot.  There is a somewhat unlikely development late in the film that strikes me as a little far-fetched, but Hertogh is a good enough actor to sell it in the moment.

It’s also a credit to the film that it’s not afraid to have its disabled protagonists act selfishly, obnoxiously and even overtly unpleasantly.  There’s a condescending tendency to show characters with disabilities as selfless and saintlike, but Enthoven is clearly confident in the quality of the performances and script, he knows that even if we see a character behaving like a little shit, we'll still be sympathetic.  Philip in particular is a real pain in the arse, and when a passer-by grabs him and angrily yells that just because he’s in a wheelchair he doesn’t have the right to insult people it feels entirely justified.

It’s critically important that we don’t relate to these characters purely in terms of their disabilities.  For the first act of the film it’s quite easy to think of them purely in terms of their disabilities, but by the mid-way point we've seamlessly begun understanding them in terms of their personalities and ambitions.  That this process is so invisible to the audience is a testament to three outstanding performances by our leads.

It’s a bit unfortunate that this should come out in the wake of The Sessions, which has somewhat stolen this film's thunder.  Good though Come as You Are is, everything from the emotional development right through to the occasionally painfully realistic depiction of disabled life is more effective in The Sessions.  But that aside, this film has a great script,  is intelligently directed and has four perfectly pitched bits of character acting. Come as You Are lets us engage with a situation that might be awkward and uncomfortable, but is nonetheless a reality for countless people around the world.  Well worth a watch.


'Come as You Are is in theatres from June 7.

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