The traditional cinematic representation of Belgium as a dour, grey, nondescript place filled with grim, depressed people has nevertheless been exploited by a number of the country’s current generation of filmmakers to make some unique and powerful films. For the Dardenne Brothers in La Promesse, Rosetta and The Child, it’s a post-industrial landscape where the inhabitants struggle with personal torments in conditions of abject misery, and in Bouli Lanners’ Ultranova, the country is a drab place where the characters eke out lives of bleak but glorious monotony. Only Tom Barman, of Belgian rock group dEUS, has managed - though not entirely convincingly - to go against the grain and depict Belgium as a hip and happening place, full of eccentric, cool characters wanting to party together, in his film Any Way The Wind Blows. To a large extent, the duo of Benoît Delépine and Gustave de Kervern – two French TV comedians - also manage to capitalise on many of the stereotypical aspects that the Belgians do so well themselves, gently self-mocking the little-European mentality of the country and its close neighbours in a black-comedic road-movie that inevitably takes them - quite literally in this case - into the world of Aki Kaurismäki.
It’s the writers and directors Delépine and K/Vern themselves who also take on the lead roles in Aaltra as two feuding neighbours in a rural area of Belgium. Perhaps representing the divisions between lifestyle choices in the country, the two are clearly seen as incompatible. Delépine plays a businessman who finds himself unable to commute or telecommunicate with his French head office in any way efficiently due to the disturbances and impediments put in his way by his farmer neighbour, played by Kervern. One day however, they take their differences too far and an accident with a piece of farming machinery leaves both of them paralysed from the waist down and confined to wheelchairs. Fate has cruelly tied them together, forcing them to even share the same room at a hospital. They try and escape from the misery of their condition – the businessman by making a trip to Namur in Wallonia to see a motocross rally, the farmer by travelling to Finland to take his anger out at the company, called Aaltra, whose farming machinery has left them in their current condition. But even there, fate conspires to keep them mutually dependent on each other - mugged and robbed, they have no alternative but to make the journey across northern Europe together, by wheelchair.
Neither of them particularly nice people in the first place, the two don’t seem to gain any humility or learn any lesson from what has happened to them. No, rather, it seems to only intensify their hatred for the world and they become even more embittered and aggressive against themselves and the people they come into contact with. Their cynicism is to some extent understandable, though not, as you might expect, through any politically correct observations on attitudes and treatment of disabled people in the community. On the contrary, most people they meet are keen to help them on their journey, only to find their hospitality somewhat abused. However, the families and people they run into tend to typify the little-European mentality and our belligerent duo derive what pleasure they can by taking complete advantage of them. Stuck in wheelchairs, there’s only so much they can do, but they manage to be quite creative in their endeavours.
The filmmakers also have to be quite creative in spinning this rather thin satire out over the length of a film, but they do so reasonably well, with some nice black comedic set pieces and strong photography of the drab, soulless, industrial landscapes and motorways of northern Europe. The depiction of the duo’s arrival in Finland - capped with a rendition of ‘Sonny’ that has to be seen to be believed (an almost show-stealing cameo from Bouli Lanners) - is worthy of Kaurismäki himself, but the film actually ends on a punchline that betrays the TV comedian roots of the filmmakers and tends to weaken the film’s satire. However, it will undoubtedly bring a wry smile to the faces of fans of the Finnish director who evidently inspired a great deal of this.
Aaltra is released in the UK by Bluebell Films. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
You are going to take whatever pleasure you can get from the film just being made available in the UK at all, since really – although it has one or two worthy extra features - this is just a basic minimal, bog-standard transfer to DVD. Slightly less than average actually, since the image – 2.35:1 no less – is presented letterboxed without anamorphic enhancement. Additionally, the subtitles are fixed on the transfer, down low in the black border below the image. This also makes it impossible to zoom the image for a widescreen TV and keep the subtitles readable. Other than that however, the image itself is serviceable. It’s black and white and the tones are reasonably strong, with few troublesome marks of any serious nature and the image remains stable, free from flicker or macroblocking artefacts. Aliasing is however quite noticeable, as will be cross-colouration, depending on the sensitivity of your display device. At least the film is in the correct aspect ratio, so there’s little here really that spoils viewing of the film in any way. It could be so much better however.
The same goes for the soundtrack, which is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is strong and robust, with a nice deep tone – the rendition of ‘Sonny’ at the end of the film in particular, ringing through effectively. However, the end-titles note a DTS soundtrack and I’m sure the film ought to come with a full surround mix. I don’t know if this would improve the film greatly – but would suspect not. What’s here then is fine, but again, could be much better.
English subtitles are provided for the French dialogue only. There are a number of languages spoken in the film by the different European families the wheelchair duo encounter, but neither the Flemish, Dutch or German is translated into the subtitles and probably isn’t intended to be, since the characters can’t understand them either, often only communicating through broken English (un-subtitled). The meaning is usually quite clear however throughout. The subtitles, as noted above, are non-removable and are placed in the black area below the letterboxed image.
There are at least a good selection of extra features included that show some originality by not sticking to the interview/making-of/commentary format. Three short teaser-style Trailers are included, which take advantage of the sketch nature of the episodes. There is a Photo Gallery of 10 images and a text piece on the Director’s Intentions, as well as a Filmography which details the filmmaker’s roots as stand-up comedians. Two Deleted Scenes are included, neither with subtitles, but none are really needed. Likewise for the five short Outtakes, which are mostly deleted scenes also. Surprisingly, the Strip Tease fully lives up to its promise – shot in retro shaky home-video style as a music promo for ‘Sonny’ by Bouli Lanners. It’s also probably the reason for this 15 certified film being recertified an 18 for DVD release. An earlier Short Film by Benoît Delépine and Christophe Smith, À L’Arraché (8:44) is also quite funny, despite some primitive special effects by Pitof. Delépine plays a car thief who makes the mistake of stealing a car from a guy who appears to be an Olympic runner. There are no subtitles, but none are really required. The punch-line however is something along the lines of “He shouldn’t have pissed me off”.
Aaltra doesn’t really rise much above its TV sketch-show roots, and it over-reaches itself in its attempt to bring together these series of little incidents into a full-length feature. However some of those incidents are very funny indeed, there are some well-chosen cameo appearances and the film remains consistent in its satire of not only Belgian males, but of similar attitudes and pettiness in their close neighbours. It’s all delightfully understated in that wry Scandanavian and North European way. Bluebell’s UK DVD release is sadly rather basic with its minimal quality transfer, but a good selection of original extra features might make up for that.