Don't Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas): IDFA Review

Wryly sobering Belgian/Dutch chronicle of alcoholism agrees with Billy Joel: sharing a drink called loneliness is better than drinking alone.

Belgian farmers Bob and Marcel feature in the first collaboration from Dutch writer-directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, premiering in competition at the Amsterdam festival.

Masculine friendship, mid-life depression and alcoholism are the meat and drink of quietly ambitious Belgian/Dutch documentary Don't Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas), an early breakout from Amsterdam's mammoth non-fiction showcase IDFA. Following several months in the lives of long-time best friends Bob and Marcel, this engagingly spiky study of men without women makes for an unlikely but highly effective crowdpleaser with its deft balancing of light and dark elements. Plentiful festival bookings will flow for a non-fiction miniature clearly and refreshingly made with the big screen in mind, and small-screen exposure is a given further down the line.

Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker (who co-directed 2010's Shout with Ester Gould) and Niels van Koevorden (2012's award-winning short By Her Side) most obviously signal their "cinematic" intentions by opting for widescreen format. Their crisp digital images endow the sleepy, damply forested countryside of Belgium with an unlikely kind of epic sweep -- the evocation of these underpopulated landscapes is unfussy but immersive, backgrounding scenes of casually intimate, grubby domesticity involving the fiftyish, hangdog Marcel and the somewhat older, bearded, be-hatted, cigar-sucking "Cowboy" Bob.

The bilingual film, with conversations in both Walloon (French) and Flemish (Dutch), begins on a fractiously frank note with a kitchen-table discussion that signals the end of Marcel's sixteen-year marriage. His wife leaves him for another man, taking their three children with her. Marcel's way of coping with this mid-life trauma is to hit the bottle pretty hard, his seemingly daily drinking and cud-chewing chats with worldly-wise, rum-guzzling neighbor Bob tipping over into benders that stretch far into the night and leave Marcel in hapless states of booze-befuddlement.

Such scenes are generally played for deadpan laughs, but as the film progresses we're left in no doubt that Marcel's predicament is a serious one indeed -- perhaps even to a fatal degree, as these farmers, who are seldom shown doing what might pass for actual work, often blithely discuss preferred methods of suicide. Marcel eventually seeks a 10-day "cure" in rehab, but the threat of a relapse into his old addiction casts a heavy cloud over the six-part picture's final two chapters.

There's a very tricky balancing-act involved here, and it's to Bakker and van Koevorden's credit that the results do not feel exploitative or voyeuristic with regard to Marcel's often-pathetic situation. The presence of the film-makers is never directly acknowledged by the participants, as is par for the course with such fly-on-the-wall material, though Marcel does come mighty close to bumping into van Koevorden's handheld camera during one especially spectacular farmhouse binge.

Bakker and van Koevorden carefully avoid the cliches which bedevil so many similar documentaries, with musical accompaniment kept to a minimum in favor of judicious deployment of classical and pop-music cuts, including legendary Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel standard which provides the film with its multi-layered title. Most striking of all are two late sequences which feature Roxette's perennial power-ballad "Listen To Your Heart", the first time eliciting a wry chuckle, the second wrapping up proceedings on a moving, resonantly disturbing note.

Venue: International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production companies: Pieter van Huystee Film, in co-production with Storyhouse, Studio Godot, NCRV
Directors/Screenwriters/Editors: Sabine Lubbe Bakker, Niels van Koevorden
Producer: Pieter van Huystee
Director of photography: Niels van Koevorden
Sales: Pieter van Huystee Film, Amsterdam
No MPAA rating, 106 minutes

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