The opening of “The Hammer Song” cheerfully suggests that “If I had a hammer/ I’d hammer in the morning,” but that is exactly the problem of the titular protagonist in the Belgian tragicomedy Patrick; he has lost his hammer. This ocher-colored feature debut from prolific Flemish TV director Tim Mielants, who has helmed episodes of Legion, The Terror and the entire third season of Peaky Blinders, is a fairly eccentric concoction set at a naturist campsite in the Belgian Ardennes, where the sudden disappearance of a tool somewhat improbably becomes a metaphor for the loss of a loved one.
Especially during the feature’s first hour, Mielants shows a real flair for combining comedy and tragedy, with flashes of oddball humor and some delicious twists and turns. But the screenplay starts to sputter in the third act, despite a sure-to-be-talked-about highlight, a deliriously staged naked fight scene that plays like that Eastern Promises sauna sequence except that it’s set inside a mobile home. Mielants, who won best director honors over the weekend at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, will definitely become a bigger name after this auspicious debut, which should see plenty of fest travel and could sell to a streaming service interested in arty counterprogramming that features at least as many penises as HBO’s current series Euphoria.
The Flemish Patrick (Kevin Janssens), with an unflattering bowl cut, is the withdrawn, thirty-something son of Rudy (Josse De Pauw, Flemish acting royalty), the owner of a campsite catering to nudists somewhere in the dense woods of the hilly, French-speaking Ardennes region. Patrick’s domineering father isn’t the greatest organizer but also hates to delegate anything, so a rebellion of sorts is already brewing among the regular visitors, headed by loud Dutch know-it-all Herman (Pierre Bokma, Dutch acting royalty), when Rudy suddenly croaks.
The idea of an emotionally inhibited exhibitionist, or at least someone who has no problem with physical nudity but who finds it impossible to be naked emotionally, is a simple but very effective basis for a drama. But Mielants and his co-writer, Benjamin Sprengers, have another ace up their sleeve, as Patrick, who drifts unmoored and naked in a nearby lake and otherwise likes to make wooden furniture, is sent into an emotional tailspin not by the death of his father but by the sudden loss of one of his tools, which occurs around the same time.
It’s a risky bet to make someone who isn’t very expressive your leading man, and for a good part of the film, Patrick remains obstinately obsessed with finding his hammer to the detriment of everything else (he doesn’t even seem aware he might want to console his mother, played by Katelijne Damen, or would have to deal with his own grief). But it gives Mielants a simple focal point for both his protagonist and his narrative, while subplots and supporting characters are arranged around this singular goal in a way that feels natural. Instead of necessarily gaining a lot of insight into Patrick himself, the audience will get a good sense of the world around him, which offers a fine substitute (and sort of explains why someone would be as withdrawn as he has become over the years). This world not only includes his mother and Herman but also several other regular customers — all in the buff, of course — as well as the rock star Dustin Apollo (Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows) and his Belgian sort-of girlfriend (Dutch actress Hanna Hoekstra, with a wobbly Flemish accent), who have decided to camp out there as well.
Tonally, the first hour is quite intricate, as Mielants bounces back and forth between tragedy and comedy, sometimes even within the same scene. For example, Herman’s wife (Ariane van Vliet), who is almost as pushy as he is, secretly visits Patrick to have sex with him in exchange for a jar of jam. It’s not something that seems to interest him but he’s also not against it, and Mielants includes a sly visual cue that suggests how long it’s been going on by showing a perfectly lined up row of jars in the background of a shot not much later.
The work of ace Dutch DP Frank van den Eeden (Girl) is often expressive and lends the naturist campsite something almost fairytale-like but in the European sense, so there’s always an undercurrent of Grimm-like darkness. A pan that ends at a window looking onto the forest where night falls thus initially seems to suggest the beauty of the surrounding nature, until the appearance of alternating red and blue lights in the distance visually suggests something terrible has happened. This is an elegant technical shorthand that helps move the story forward, much like Geert Hellings’ initially dirge-like score.
As the plot thickens, some of the humor disappears. An abundance of plot twists start to crowd out the delicate balance of atmosphere and character, especially when a local policeman (a jovial Bouli Lanners) gets involved. And by concentrating too much on the physical hammer’s adventures in the closing reels, Mielants loses sight of the might of the hammer as a metaphor.
Janssens, known for hunky tough-roles, gained weight for this unusual part of a man-child obsessed with a missing hammer, and he impresses. Generally speaking, acting is strong across the board, which is not surprising because the cast features some of the most respected actors from the Benelux, none of whom seem fazed by all the required non-sexual nudity.
As befits a film about nudists, Mielants treats all nudity with such nonchalance it becomes a non-issue after just a few minutes. It’s not the clothes that make the titular man so much as it is his desire to make the world right again by bringing back the one thing that has gone missing.
Production companies: Savage Film, Eyeworks, Topkapi Films, Versus Production, Scio Productions
Cast: Kevin Janssens, Pierre Bokma, Ariane van Vliet, Hannah Hoekstra, Jemaine Clement, Bouli Lanners, Josse De Pauw
Director: Tim Mielants
Screenwriters: Benjamin Sprengers, Tim Mielants
Producers: Bart Van Langendonck, Sarah Marks
Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden
Production designer: Hubert Pouille
Costume designer: Valerie Leroy
Editor: Alain Dessauvage
Music: Geert Hellings
Casting director: Ann Willems
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Beta Cinema
In Dutch, French, English, German