Let’s Roll

I imagine when Conan approached me about posting to his fine blog my thoughts concerning the intricacies of the art of film and filmmaking, he had, perhaps, in mind more lofty philosophical queries than those surrounding, say, caped crusaders and teenage surfer vampire dudes.  I admit, and even tried to warn you in my first post, that my tastes run the gamut from the very lowest of brows to the (somewhat) higher, even, at times, reaching for that which might be called High Art (whatever that means, right?).  So, to throw a dog a bone and attempt to salvage what remains of my good name among the sidewhites.com administration, I bring you some artsy mind-fodder concerning a fine Belgian film entitled Aaltra.

Aaltra concerns two neighbors in rural northern France, one blue collar, the other white collar, who detest one another.  When the office worker is summoned by his boss to be in his office in Paris in half an hour or face termination, he races in his car to catch the next train, only to be cut off by his neighbor, pulling out of his field in a huge, and slow, piece of machinery.  The man cannot get around the farm machinery, misses his train, and consequently loses his job.  Oh, and when he returns home he finds his wife in bed with another man!  At his wits’ end, he races across his neighbor’s field, confronts him, and the two begin pummeling one another furiously.  In the midst of their pugilism, a huge piece of the farmer’s harvester breaks off and falls on the two men.  They wake in the hospital, still bitter with one another, and both without the use of their legs.  What ensues is nothing less than outright hilarity, of the blackest pitch, as the men begin their lives anew from the confines of their wheelchairs and embark on a journey across Belgium all the way to Finland, to the headquarters of the harvester’s manufacturer, Aaltra, in order to demand compensation for their suffering.

The film is shot in black and white, and beautifully so.  Every frame is stark and at times alarmingly realistic.  There is nothing soft in this story whatsoever, and the visual aesthetic confirms this beyond any doubt.  It is suggested in reviews that part of this harsh style is due in large part to lack of budget, but I really cannot imagine this film in anything but the concrete, hardened images in which it is presented.  It’s a grey world after all, kids, no matter what Disney tells you. 

Aaltra easily brings to mind one of my favorite French Fatalists, Samuel Beckett.  The simple plot of two men wheeling themselves across Europe to confront a faceless entity is so plagued by the insanity and futility of itself that it becomes farcical.  Only, this is no farce.  These men exist.  And they are paraplegic.  One of Beckett’s famous one-liners is “I can’t go on.  I go on.”  This is a fitting mantra for these brothers-in-chairs, as, throughout their journey, they are confronted with situations which would make the most even-keeled amongst us lay down and cry like a baby.  For instance, while attending a dirtbike motocross (our whitecollar protagonist is a motorcycle enthusiast), the two men park themselves by the front gate, right up against the fence, affording themselves the best possible view.  Someone from the track comes along and tells them they have to move, as they are “killing the dream.”  I reiterate, this is dark humor.  Another scenario finds our protagonists abandoned on the beach as high tide is rolling in.  Unable to wheel themselves out of the sandy mire, we watch as the water rises to just about chin level, where it halts, and one man says to the other, “I think it’s going down now.”  It’s ok to laugh out loud; I did.

The brilliance of this film, and what makes it impossible not to laugh, is that these men, who were complete jerks before their accident, remain complete jerks in the wake of the accident.  The reason they are left alone on the beach is that they swiped a bottle of hooch from the kind family who had picked them up in their RV and proceeded to drink themselves into a stupor, in front of the kind family’s children and their idyllic sand castles.  There is no grand soul searching here, no Nicholas Sparks-esque feel-good revelation, only the grim, black and white, even, reality that what is, simply, is.  Their unfortunate condition does not give these men license to treat others the way they do.  And yet they do.  It might help explain some of their bitterness, but we’ve already seen them act just as bitter and nasty before the accident!  Various people throughout their journey attempt to help the men, out of, we presume, some great self-imposed moral imperative to help those in need.  You know, just like the good Book says.  Don’t worry, they are all taken advantage of.  All of this, as with Beckett’s plays, seems imbued with a sense of the apocalyptic, only, through the simple act of going on, the apocalypse becomes livable.  It is not surmountable, but, somehow, less harmful, endurable.  Just as the waiting around does not kill Vladimir and Estragon, consequently the universe does not weaken the wills of these men to the point of suicide.  It maims them, for sure, but they go on.  In fact, they manage by the end of the film to find themselves in Finland!

I won’t spoil the ending here, only I will say that there is much more of the same.  Aaltra is at times morose, always unequivocally irreverent, and often laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s razor-sharp, and will have you thinking about the ins and outs of what defines a handicap, what determines cruelty, and the nature of best intentions.  If you deal with a chronic health condition or know someone who does, you may see aspects of yourself or that relationship in some of these characters.  Seek this film out (Netflix has it on their “watch now” feature)—I already want to see it again!

One Response to “Let’s Roll”

  1. Conan Says:

    This sounds like fine viewing. If I had time to watch movies I’d put this on my list. Maybe one day…

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