The elevator pitch for Patrick immediately calls to mind Lukas Valenta Rinner’s A Decent Woman — both films are outré comedies set in the rarely represented world of naturism. But where Rinner’s film operated primarily as a gonzo classist satire, Tim Mielants’ feature debut falls more squarely within the sub-Coen school of comedy (think a drowsier take on Alex van Warmerdam). Kevin Janssens stars as Patrick, a meek 38-year-old handyman who lives and works on his family’s campsite in some Beneluxian forest. When his father suddenly dies, he is thrust into an undesired decision-making role, but instead chooses to fix his attention on a missing hammer and embarks on a mission to reclaim what’s his. Patrick’s particular pathology remains vague, but what’s clear is that he struggles to process emotions, possesses severely underdeveloped interpersonal skills, and avoids conflict at all costs. Janssens goes full Bale in the part, going from his finely coiffed, sleekly beard beefcake role in Revenge to a paunch, baby-faced schlub sporting something close to a bowl cut. While mostly nude throughout the entire film, Patrick usually wears a dull brown button-up that frames his burly mass, and he seems to trudge everywhere he goes, shirt flapping in his wake — it’s an image that is repeated for dry comedic effect every few minutes.
The problem, then, is that beyond these comic signifiers, there is very little that defines what this film wants to be, and even those efforts are more winking than humorous. Another example: a certain conniving couple in this makeshift community, though otherwise nude, frequently wears country club-style sweaters draped around their necks, just to make their true nature clear. Each similar instance is but another part of the same broad joke about internalized social constructs, and it’s a bit of an odd strategy to use nudity to contextualize all of the humor given how otherwise admirably normalized the film’s depiction of the human body is. It would have been more radical to adhere to a comedic template operating in full ignorance of the film’s central conceit. But Patrick doesn’t really know what to do with its material, and settles on a stale narrative about a group of people who are physically naked but emotionally swaddled. Mielants does his best to build a discomfiting mood — a few swirling musical cues and a whole mess of ominous, dead-eyed stares do the heavy lifting — but this does little to pitch-correct a dawdling film that seems to be simply running out the clock. Patrick strives to be understated, but manages it to a fault: on screen, its conceptual docility is merely soporific. It’s as if the only artistic ambition here was to treat nudity with nonchalance, attempting to create layers of depth by laying bare its conceit — it’s the sort of addition by subtraction logic that rarely works in execution. There’s a running gag here about white bread, which seems to be the cuisine du jour on the campground, but much like the film itself, it’s never clear what the joke is. It’s a fitting metaphor for Patrick as a whole: for all its effort to suggest something satisfying and unique, in the end it’s still just white bread.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2020 — Dispatch 2.