There’s no rulebook or any one way for a person to react to the death of a family member. And with his first big screen endeavour, Patrick, Peaky Blinders director Tim Mielants has crafted as unusual an exploration of grief and loss as you are ever likely to see.
Set in a simple, rather shabby nudist resort in the middle of a rugged Belgian wilderness, you’d think that if you went down to the woods today, you’d be in for a big surprise. But one of the many ways Mielants’ debut subverts our expectations is the casual insouciance with which it treats its scantily clad ensemble. It’s not like we haven’t seen it all before, right? Serenity abounds as we first meet our eponymous anti-hero (a stoical, socially awkward Kevin Janssens), bathing in a lake.
Pleasantries are exchanged as body parts of all shapes and sizes hang loose in the morning sunshine, but it’s a slight warning note on the score – not the full frontal – that creates a lurking, imperceptible uneasiness, suggesting all is not well in this unusual paradise. In his late 30s, Patrick still lives at home with his parents, helping them to run the campsite and tinkering in his workshop. While he’s happy enough to stroll around in just a loose shirt and jelly shoes for the duration, he isn’t a man comfortable in his own skin.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it’s the death of his father, Rudy (Josse De Pauw), that marks an irrevocable fork in the road. Will Patrick take on the mantle of managing the family business? Will he succumb to an offer to sell up by one of the site’s regular summer visitors, Herman (Pierre Bokma)? All of this is just a bit much for Patrick to deal with, especially given that one of his prized hammers has gone missing. He doesn’t need sympathy, pats on the back or even a casual shag (with Herman’s wife, Lilliane – Ariane Van Vliet), he just wants to find his hammer.
Defying any conventional euphemisms of what this tool might represent, frequent shots of the empty space it filled as part of a treasured set make it clear that Patrick’s search is to make himself whole once again – or in fact to find a new whole in the wake of his father’s death. His furrowed brow, inability to make eye contact and shuffling awkwardness mean that the real conflict of Mielants’ film is an internal, psychological one. The comical litany of clues as to who had stolen the hammer, where it has travelled and whether it can be retrieved are a side-show to – or rather a reflection of – the introspective journey Patrick takes to come to terms with the past, present and a worrying future.
For all the external ease with which the characters bare all, while Mielants has fun with the red herrings and ludicrousness of the hammer hunt, it is the hidden agendas, emotion, resentment and nastiness that cannot be seen that troubles him and his leading man. Internal vulnerability is far more profound than face value judgement. So often sexualised onscreen for little more than titillation, the nakedness of human forms here lays bare the essence of what really makes a human being tick.
Patrick is an oddball, but he is an honest, gentle soul, has integrity, and, above all, is true to himself. There is strength in not knowing, not conforming, not doing what people expect of you. And who says coming-of-age stories can’t be about a man pushing forty? It’s never too late to work out who you are.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63