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A group of beardy Belgian rockers pushing fifty ends up in Nowheresville, Quebec, with their lead singer under their arm — in an urn — in the odd but affecting Je suis mort mais j’ai des amis, from fraternal directing duo Stephane and Guillaume Malandrin. A scrappy, bittersweet French-language indie about friendship, this film boasts charms derived mainly from the big-hearted performances of its leading trio: Flemish actor Wim Willaert (When the Sea Rises), French-Algerian actor Lyes Salem (L’Oranais, which he also directed) and the most recognizable of the bunch, Belgian heavyweight Bouli Lanners (Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia, Nothing to Declare), the European king of surly comedy. Finally too familiar and low-key for any kind of major breakout beyond Francophonia, this should nonetheless interest smaller festivals and VOD outlets.
As this film, whose French title roughly translates as “I’m Dead But I Have Friends,” attests, there are at least two other fraternal duos working in Belgian cinema beyond the Dardenne brothers: producers Jacques-Henri and Olivier Bronckart and writer-directors Stephane and Guillaume Malandrin, who have two previous features to their names: I Don’t Care if Tomorrow Never Comes, which screened at Cannes in the ACID section, and Hand of the Headless Man with Cecile de France and Lanners. Both films were dark family dramas, though the family in their latest and lighter film is one formed by friends.
Mort opens rather enigmatically with an older gentleman of Innu (native Canadian) heritage recounting the story of Pete Best, the original drummer of the Beatles who was soon replaced by Ringo Starr, directly to camera. How this relates to what’s to follow will only emerge much later. The film proper kicks off with a concert of Grand Ours (“Great Bear,” the male version of the Ursa Major constellation), a full-on, old-school rock band with Ivan (Lanners) and Wim (Willaert) on guitar and bass and Jipe (Malandrin regular Jacky Lammers) as the singer (the group’s rock repertoire was culled from the catalog of Paris-based cult label Born Bad Records).
Much more into beer than personal hygiene, these burly rockers are all excited about their upcoming, first-ever tour in the U.S., which should take them to L.A., amongst other places. But several mishaps prevent them from ever arriving in the City of Angels. Firstly, Jipe dies in a strange accident after a concert at their local watering hole. But that’s just a minor inconvenience, as the remaining band members decide they’ll do their planned concerts anyway, with a microphone pointed at Jipe’s urn. But then their transatlantic flight is diverted after a mishap involving a lot of vomiting — thankfully hilariously recounted after the fact, not actually shown — and they have to make an emergency landing in Sept Iles, a tiny Quebec airport. From there, Wim, Ivan and Dany (Salem), a NATO pilot who’s Jipe’s secret lover, get on a train that, instead of to Montreal, takes them all the way up north to Schefferville, among the Innu people.
The film’s narrative arc is thus a road-trip format featuring several types of transportation (except an actual car), and of course they meet the genre’s standard colorful characters along the way, including a no-nonsense local woman (Marie-Renee Andre) who falls for Ivan. The drama’s main conflicts come from the very different characters of Wim and Ivan and the fact Ivan can’t handle being around Dany, not because he can’t handle gay people but because he can’t believe his best friend didn’t tell him about his live-in lover for five years.
The film’s humor is occasionally extremely local, such as when Jipe’s ashes are transferred to an industrial-sized container of Sirop de Liege, a kind of Belgian apple butter. But generally, the Maladrin brothers stick closely enough to the genre template for things to remain accessible and recognizable, while using small details — such as the similar labels of the Jupiler and Budweiser beers — to suggest things aren’t that different on both sides of the Atlantic.
Though road trip-type movies tend to be episodic by nature, Mort too often feels like a succession of standalone scenes with different kinds of humor and/or drama, and the Malandrins also struggle to come up with anything new to say about death, friendship or rock music. That said, these problems are largely papered over by the fully inhabited roles of the extremely game actors, who manage to project their emotions and insecurities from behind their bushy beards (for Willaert and Lanners) or carefully trimmed facial hair (Salem). They finally ensure that the film remains something of a lovable mess throughout.
And though noticeably made on a modest budget, the film nonetheless exudes a very clear sense of place on both continents and features an appealing, consistently rocky soundtrack.
Production companies: Versus Production, TS Productions, Altitude 100, Minds Meet
Cast: Bouli Lanners, Wim Willaert, Lyes Salem, Serge Riaboukine, Jacky Lambert, Marie-Renee Andre
Writer-Directors: Stephane Malandrin, Guillaume Malandrin
Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart
Co- producer: Milena Poylo, Gilles Sacuto, Guillaume Malandrin, Stephane Malandrin, Tomas Leyers
Director of photography: Hugues Poulain
Production designer: Eve Martin
Costume designer: Elise Ancion
Editor: Yannick Leroy
Music: Born Bad Records, Dino Carapelle
Sales: Be For Films
No rating, 95 minutes
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