If Jim Jarmusch made a movie about two alcoholic friends hanging out in the woods, it might look something like the Dutch documentary "Don't Leave Me" ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"). Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden's hilariously touching portrait of bitter men drowning their sorrows in booze is the ultimate buddy comedy with brains. Shot in the isolated forests of Wallonia, in French-speaking southern Belgium, it manages a fascinating naturalistic tone that's infectiously lighthearted without obscuring the downbeat quality of its subjects' lives.
The filmmakers focus on the meandering exploits of middle-aged native Marcel and his slightly older Flemish chum Bob, whose destructive antics have cut them off from any source of companionship aside from each other. As they stumble through a seemingly abandoned world defined by their vices and self-deprecating wit, "Don't Leave Me" marks the finest example of deadpan humor to come along in years. That's largely because it never strays from an emotional foundation that makes Marcel and Bob so likable no matter how much they screw up.
Any restrictive notion of documentary storytelling evaporates before the first frame, when Bakker and Van Koevorden cite "Waiting For Godot" in an opening quote, contextualizing their small cast in the traditional minimalist theater. The spirit of Samuel Beckett is certainly alive in this depiction of Marcel and Bob as they sit around chugging various intoxicants and reflecting on their meaningless existence. Their chemistry is key: The disheveled Marcel's loud, biting pronouncements form a sharp contrast to the soft-spoken Bob, who obscures his gloomy backstory under a decrepit fedora and trench coat, where he keeps a flask on call for any given moment.
Their defeatist attitude manifests in amusingly wonky fashion. Marcel's garrulous energy constantly puts him in the corner -- during the first scene, he tries to talk his wife of 16 years into a final screw after she announces plans to leave him -- while Bob shrugs off his woes with peculiar understatement: In an early scene, he takes a long walk to the tree he ascribes near-spiritual significance only to find that it has been cut down. "Tough luck," he sighs, as if it were his mantra.
Bakker and Koevorden frame the men with a carefree quality that liberates their irreverent misadventures, setting the scene with a bouncy rockabilly soundtrack at odds with their static lives. The camera captures them in somber moments tinged with an absurdity. At one point, Marcel takes his kids to a costume party and sits in the corner with a sullen expression while the lights and music create an amazingly ironic juxtaposition.
Such moments encourage speculation about how much the scenario has been planned; the timing of the gags and the complexity of the characters feel almost too neat. Yet "Don't Leave Me" remains so transfixing that the conditions of its production are secondary to its ability to entertain and provoke in equal measures. Hailing from the direct cinema school of non-fiction filmmaking, it shows virtually no evidence of a cameraman in the room, which makes it easy to settle into the duo's lives without contemplating how or why they've decided to reveal themselves so candidly.