For most British filmgoers, mentions of naturism will automatically summon up visions of Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw hyperventilating over a documentary about naked holidaying in Carry on Camping. Nothing could be further from the tone of this Belgian tragicomedy, a wry and oddly moving tale set in a world largely unencumbered by clothing, but riddled with intrigue, deceit, and the promise of self-discovery.
On a remote naturist campsite in the Ardennes, handyman Patrick (Kevin Janssens), son of the camp’s owners, worries over the loss of his hammer. Its absence is driven home by the empty space on his meticulously ordered tool rack, a void outlining the exact shape of his anxiety. Patrick’s father Rudy (Josse De Pauw) is dismissive, convinced that his son has simply been careless with his possession. But when Rudy dies and Patrick inherits the camp, his desire to find the missing tool becomes an obsession. Those around him think he’s simply projecting his bereaved grief. Meanwhile, Herman (Pierre Bokma) and Liliane (Ariane van Vliet), the latter of whom engages Patrick in joyless sex, are planning to seize control of the camp, taking advantage of Patrick’s weakened state. Yet all Patrick can think about is his hammer.
The fact that such sub-Shakespearean intrigue plays out in the nude is, remarkably, the least remarkable thing about this deadpan delight. Director and co-writer Tim Mielants (a veteran of TV shows including Peaky Blinders and Legion) took inspiration from a 1985 stay at a naturist campsite in the Pyrenees, where “it wasn’t the nudity on the campsite but the odd encounters with the strange individuals I came across that remained indelibly etched on my mind”. The same is true of the film, in which nakedness becomes merely a costume, and the real focus is on the internecine struggles within this cloistered community.
There’s a touch of Forrest Gump about Janssens’s title character, a holy fool who finds it impossible to meet the gaze of others, but who proves remarkably resilient in his grail-like quest. With his perpetually lowered head and cowed eyes peering out from under his pudding-bowl fringe, Patrick has the air of a man carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Scenes of him helping his ailing father out of a bath, or sharing a meal with his mother, who is blind, are played with the straight bat of a serious drama, tender and touching.
But just as the cast ranges from acclaimed stage and screen actor Bokma (the Derek Jacobi of Dutch drama) to New Zealand comedian and musician Jemaine Clement, playing arrogant visiting celebrity Dustin Apollo, so the tone of Mielants’s film can shift from sadness to absurdity in an instant. In one memorable scene, the scrappiness of a brawl between two naked men recalls not the homoeroticism of the wrestling scene in Ken Russell’s Women in Love but the murderous black comedy of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and is watched with haughty disdain by Liliane, who seems to have stepped out of one of Mike Leigh’s acerbic Play for Today instalments.
Shot in natural hues by cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, Patrick worries away at an existential dilemma summed up by Apollo’s declaration: “Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to not want what you want”. Anyone wanting a raunchy comedy with titillating displays of flesh definitely won’t get it.
Patrick is on digital platforms, including virtual cinema partnerships, and at Chapter, Cardiff