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.
The resulting odyssey, which finds Bob submitting himself to a rehab clinic and considering his next move, has the clean rhythms of a scripted black comedy. (With their precise archetypes echoing the attributes of a traditional “Odd Couple” pairing, one can easily imagine a producer snatching up the rights to turn “Don’t Leave Me” into an American narrative with the likes of Zach Galinianakis as Marcel and perhaps Bryan Cranston in the role of Bob. You read it here first, folks.) Irrespective of the degree to which various scenes contain a constructed element, “Don’t Leave Me” allows the men to carry each scene with their off-the-cuff wit. Announcing his plans for one day, Bob sighs, “I’m going to die first…then, I’ve got some leftover meatballs.”
Since the days of Chaplin, melancholic figures have provided the best examples of slapstick, and these guys are no exception. An unruly joint visit to the dentist offers one of several moments of unsettling physical humor. A more shocking sequence involves Marcel passing out drunk in Bob’s living room, prompting him to pour hot water to waken his sleeping pal; in another bit, he slips Marcel a shot of ammonia in a questionable attempt to cure his hangover.
Though Bob at first seems like the more collected of the two, when Marcel submits himself to a clinic, he starts to understand his friend’s buried problems as more developed versions of his own: Bob, estranged from his adult son while Marcel struggles to remain a good dad to his young kids, proudly announces that he has no problem with a daily diet of rum. Puzzled by this revelation, Marcel is closer to the prospects of returning to his old ways than he initially realizes. The story smartens up along with him.
Ultimately the movie’s assertive centerpiece, Marcel remains utterly likable in spite of his catastrophic ways, an utter mess desperately searching for a good time, which places him in a familiar tradition of bumbling male anti-heroes (imagine Kenny Powers by way of Homer Simpson). Telling lewd jokes to the nurses in his ward and then offering to buy them drinks, he threatens to turn his plight into a complete farce. But once back in the outside world, he battles through withdrawal symptoms with alarming results that deepen the stakes of his conflict.
The directors sustain a visual appeal on par with the unusual charisma their stars. Littered with beautiful compositions, “Don’t Leave Me” uses insightful visual and audio cues to emphasize their secluded lives: a fleeting cutaway to a drowning frog mirrors Marcel’s predicament as he copes with the temptation to take another drink; the use of Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart” blaring from a stereo creates an ironic context while Marcel broods by the window. Through it all, the minimalist quality of Marcel and Bob’s lifestyle results in a touching, wistful quality that most dramatically-tinged mainstream comedies would never dare approach.
Irrespective of their chaotic ways, the men maintain an astute self-awareness. “If we don’t feel pain, we can’t tell when something feels good,” Bob asserts. That nugget of wisdom finds its visual parallel in a climactic image where Marcel fumbles his way up a snowy hill with his motorcycle. Viewed solo, his conundrum assails the notion that misery loves company by showing that no amount of it can supply a cure-all for terminal addiction. Stuck in a loop, Marcel and Bob push ahead, but their perennial intoxication is never more than a temporary fix.
Criticwire Grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Certain to please festival audiences around the world following its premiere at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, “Don’t Leave Me” faces tough theatrical prospects in North America (though it has already landed distribution with a Dutch company for early next year). However, strong reviews may turn it into one of the year’s sleeper hits.