The most controversial film to have emerged from Belgium since Man Bites Dog, Koen Mortier's Ex Drummer is an exercise in Flemish shock tactics. Adapted from a novel by Herman Brusselmans, the film strives hard to be as provocative as possible. Its tone varies wildly. At times, it is gratuitously offensive. At times, it is crude and clumsy. There are even moments of Spinal Tap-style humour. Underlining its director's reputation as one of Belgium's leading commercials directors, the film boasts some very stylish and inventive sequences. The music (from Millionaire, Arno and Flip Kowlier among others) is moody and atmospheric. In the end, though, the adolescent posturing becomes increasingly wearisome. In among all the sound and fury, it's hard to work out just what points Mortier is trying to make.
Ex Drummer is already making a din on the festival circuit - it premiered at Rotterdam - and has split opinion in Flanders, where it is being given a limited release later in the month. Its main recommendation - and probably the reason it was chosen in official selection in Rotterdam and Gothenburg - is that it is never bland. It could conceivably achieve a cult status among younger cinemagoers who warm to its sarcasm, its pop promo-style production values, and in-your-face wallowing in blood, violence and obscenity. Like Baise-Moi or Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, it's a film which will sell on its notoriety. Its problem is that jaded international audiences may struggle to see what all the fuss is about while locals could be put off by the negative publicity that already surrounds the film.
Dries (played with crumpled charisma by Dries Van Hegen) is a famous but cynical novelist, living in an expensive tower block apartment in Ostend. When he is approached by three would-be rock musicians - all with slight handicaps - he agrees to become their drummer. His aim, he confides, is to 'latch on to the life of losers... descend into the depths of stupidity, ugliness.'
There is something diabolic about the way he manipulates his three new comrades, who are spectacularly dysfunctional types. The lead singer Koen - who is a violent skinhead misogynist - has a lisp. The guitarist Ivan is deaf, unemployed, drug addicted and a wife beater. Jan is gay and has an arm he can't bend (seemingly something to do with his bald mother capturing him masturbating.) Together, they form a new band, The Feminists, and begin to rehearse for 'a battle of the bands.'
An elegant credits sequence, which plays in reverse sequence and shows cast and technicians' name written on cars, magazines and lampposts that the band members ride by on their bikes, gives way to a repulsive scene of Koen beating up a woman with a brick. His hobby is smearing blood around his apartment.
There is something uncomfortable and potentially patronising about the way the film-makers treat these shambolic protagonists. Thankfully, Mortier brings self-mocking, absurdist humour to his material. This is most apparent in the treatment of rival musician Harry Mulisch, nicknamed 'Big Dick,' a character so crude and repellent that he makes the Feminists look like the soul of restraint.
When Dries isn't with his new band, he is back at home, enjoying threesomes (shot in voyeuristic soft focus) with his girlfriend and the Minister of Hygiene's daughter.
Certain scenes are utterly bizarre. For example, when Dries meets Ivan's wife for the first time, she volunteers the information that 'I stink. My cunt stinks too, of rotten fish.' The two then discuss bodily odours as if they are having a friendly conversation about the weather. Other references are so local that they may baffle international audiences. For example, in Belgium, there has reportedly been disquiet about the film's crude references to former Belgian monarch, King Baudouin, who died in 1993. Dries calls him 'a moronic arsehole' and 'that impotent postage stamp'.
The stylisation - characters talking directly to camera, the use of slow motion and reverse footage, the prosthetics and the dream sequences - suggest we should not be taking what we see on screen altogether seriously. There is a sense that the entire story is a fiction that has been concocted in the mind of Dries. Even so, some sequences - for instance, the homosexual rape - are truly grotesque.
The battle of the bands is taken in deadly earnest. Mortier effectively captures the sweaty claustrophobia of the venue where the bands are performing and the strange mix of nerves and testosterone of the would-be rock gods.
Following the band contest, there is a luridly violent coda in which the film briefly (and bizarrely) lurches into slasher territory. The bloodletting is interspersed with bizarre, Brechtian-style scenes in which the victims talk about their experience on camera. You watch Ex Drummer with what Billy Mulisch calls 'a sick curiosity' and in the hope that it might finally make some kind of sense. It never does.
Manu Van Hove