Politically Incorrect Humour

in 48th BFI London Film Festival

by Ernesto Garratt

A curious thing to note about Belgian film Aaltra is that out of all the first or second films that were eligible for the Fipresci award at the London Film Festival, it was the one that displayed the most rebellious attitude and formal research. What is curious about that is that Aaltra is a comedy; not a drama or a tragedy. It is a comedy, but of a special kind.

What we are seeing here is a daring work, solidly made and politically incorrect, born from the minds of two Belgian television comedians. This debut film turns Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern into an example of the intelligent use of absurd and black humour.

Aaltra is a comedy on the antipodes of the jokes and gags that Hollywood has gotten us used to. Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, who wrote the plot, directed and starred in the film, come from the television, but were able to go beyond that medium’s level. They ambitiously bet on a raw, attractive mise-en-scène: the black and white, rough and grainy image creates a form that fits the story splendidly.

Just like in the classic silent comedies such as those of Laurel and Hardy –those black and white wonders that Aaltra, perhaps unconsciously, pays a remarkable tribute to- the plot is based on an uneven couple. Delépine is a thin office clerk and Kervern, his neighbour, is an insouciant farmer that drives an Aaltra tractor without worrying about a thing.

They hate each other, but since there’s only one step from love to hatred, fate soon brings them together in an unexpected way. During a fight, and due to a problem with the Aaltra tractor, they suffer an accident together. As a result, the two become handicapped and must use wheelchairs to move. The insanely funny part of the plot is that they decide to join forces and travel through the Belgian highways on a road movie… in wheelchairs! The goal is to find the tractor builders and complain about their negligence.

Who would dare say NO to a handicapped in a wheelchair? No one. But as the film and the roads (attractively photographed by Hugues Poulain) roll away, Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern prove that they are capable of getting on everybody’s nerves, even of the most patient people. Through abusive demands, they take advantage of people’s good will. These are precisely the sequences in which the humour and gags become the most politically incorrect. The filmmakers are irreverent and capable of making people uneasy through smart, visually remarkable jokes. They use a cartoon logic in the style of Tex Avery and turn it more adult and consistent. And, at times, poetic.

The laughter never stops. Aaltra is nearly a silent film, without colours. It barely has any dialogues and is based on a physical humour, a kind of contained slapstick style (of course, they are in wheelchairs). However, there is such energy, vitality and boldness in its core, that this formal modesty never betrays the gags.

Both threads, humour and form, are outstandingly enlaced. This allows us to speculate that Aaltra should be a transcendental first step (at least in film terms) for these filmmakers. In no case a false step. They already drove their wheelchairs for too many miles to consider them simple beginners. They achieved their initiation with talent.

Edited by Pamela Bienzobas