Directors: Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern. Belgium. 2004. 90 mins.
Tell people that a festival's hot ticket is a black-and-white Belgian road comedy, and you're liable to be greeted with scepticism, especially when the protagonists are two middle-aged men in wheelchairs. Nevertheless, Aaltra is this year's surprise delight at Rotterdam (where it played in the Tiger Awards Competition): a bad-mannered, defiantly oddball farce, high on economical storytelling and visual invention in a Jacques Tati vein.
Director-writers Delepine and Kervern play a farmer and a business commuter who come to blows after a slow-burn set-up. Both men lose the use of their legs in an accident with a piece of farm machinery, and end up embarking on separate journeys in their wheelchairs - one to watch his beloved motocross, the other to confront the Helsinki-based manufacturer of the fateful machine ('Aaltra' is the name of the company). But circumstances force the pair to team up, freeloading and generally terrorising everyone they meet. The narrative is punctuated by seemingly haphazard incidents, including a hardcore punk gig and a priceless karaoke routine in a Finnish biker bar.
Given that the film uses at least five European languages, mainly French, it nevertheless works effectively like a silent comedy, with its concise sight gags benefiting from Hugues Poulain's stark photography. When speech is prominent, it is often either as background or as a device to mislead us: a barroom bore whining about in-car air-conditioning throws us off our guard for a sublime sight gag in the corner of the shot.
The film is revealing about attitudes to disability, without indulging either sentiment or preachiness. The people whom the duo encounter largely divide into loathsome, clueless or sympathetic, but even those who help them are treated shabbily in return. The farmer mugs passers-by from his wheelchair, while the motocross fan outrageously exploits a well-meaning English cyclist (Jason Flemyng).
The lead duo are a classic 'old couple' mismatch - Delepine playing a shaggy lump who spends most of the film in his vest, Kervern a smooth neurotic. The film features several cameos, including Aki Kaurismaki and Benoit Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog, The Carriers Are Waiting) as an obnoxious loudmouth; it is typical of the film's cheek that it contrives to show us Poelvoorde, the film's best-known Belgian name, with his face obscured from view.
Not least of Aaltra's strengths is that, even if it seems at first to use disability as a comic ploy, it actually conveys a strong sense of what it might be like to travel relying solely on your wheels and your wits. This irreverent, consistently surprising outing will be popular at festivals, especially those with a focus on disability. It should have a strong box-office feel in the Benelux countries and in France, while its emphasis on the visual will help it cross borders, especially given the success of a certain Nordic strain of downbeat wit as seen in the likes of Kitchen Stories or last year's Rotterdam success Noi The Albino. It can certainly count on support from loyal Kaurismaki fans, who will probably pay just to hear their hero deliver the film's punchline in typically lugubrious fashion.
Production company: La Parti Productions
International sales: La Parti
Producers: Vincent Tavier, Guillaume Malandrin
Screenplay: Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Cinematography: Hugues Poulain
Production design: Isabelle Girard
Editor: Anne-Laure Guegan
Main cast: Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern, Aki Kaurismaki, Jason Flemyng, Benoit Poelvoorde, Noel Godin, Jan Bucquoy