When paraplegic horn dog Philip (Robrecht Vanden Thoren) learns of a Spanish brothel which caters exclusively to the disabled, he immediately embarks on a road trip across Europe with his best friends Lars (Gilles De Schryver), a terminally ill cancer patient, and Jozef (Tom Audenaert), who is mostly blind, with one simple mission: to lose their virginities.
First released in 2011 in Belgium under the deceptively Spanish title Hasta La Vista, Geoffrey Enthoven‘s mirthful Come As You Are is more than cut out to be one of this summer’s foreign language hits.
Packaged as a sex comedy in the tradition of Porky’s and Superbad—albeit one with a serious dimension to it—the film’s sombre tone occasionally rings much truer of Continental realism than of the escapist American cinema whose conventions it apes. However much ‘the boys’ strive to live like carefree Inbetweeners, they find life has them boxed in another genre entirely.
Their concerned parents are by no means the comic foils from American Pie; they are racked by burden and worry throughout. A stern nurse (Isabelle de Hertogh) must supervise their entire trip. Illness intervenes at inopportune moments.
In the film’s opening scene, two women run on a Dutch beach as the camera becomes increasingly centred on their heaving breasts. As we pull away, we realise they are being watched by Philip, and that we were seeing the women through his eyes. Thoren is limited to acting solely through his face and the movements of his chair, and yet convincingly sells us his character, and his character’s seemingly uncomplicated motivations, within moments.
And yet as the story progresses—and the film loses pace—it becomes clear that losing their virginities signifies a lot more to these boys than just a rite of passage. The mode of Brazen Teen Comedy is increasingly exchanged for that of Thoughtful Arthouse. Levity is swapped for seriousness.
Tellingly, it is a teen film without any teenagers, an irony its sex comedy/road trip structure only illuminates further. Thoren and De Schryver are both handsome actors, which only intensifies the pathos of mid-twenties men living out teenage dreams.
It is a testament to Enthoven’s steady hand that the film’s tonal shifts—there’s at least one per scene—are not more jarring than they are. Instead, tonal uncertainties pervade the film. Injuries befalling the helpless more readily induce outright wincing than uproarious cringe-comedy laughter, and many of its jokes are far too timid, and too safe, to provoke much reaction at all. As a result of their disabilities, the characters are unable to truly embark on genuinely hilarious hijinks, and so it sometimes feels as if something is missing. The audience must instead content itself with smaller moments, subtler interactions, wry expressions. It is more smile-to-yourself-quietly funny than it is laugh-out-loud funny.
At the Q&A which followed the screening , De Schryver and Thoren explained that being great friends in real life made playing friends on screen easy for them. And Enthoven describes it as a film about “unconditional friendship.” But is it? Certainly, it is a film about three friends, but the substance of their friendship and the strength of their bond go largely unexamined. Their friendship is one of happenstance: they know one another, and are all disabled. While Pierre De Clercq’s screenplay by no means ignores these faultlines, it certainly does not plumb them fully for dramatic or comedic potential either.
Come As You Are is, for all these faults however, a well-produced and visually stunning film. Its lead males, as well as Hertogh, all give nuanced and understated performances. It is a film with a profound sense of empathy, if perhaps a tad too much sentimentality. Its cocktail of playfulness and poignancy may at times seem a little sweet, but it goes down very smoothly. It’s well worth a watch, and is ripe with touching moments which will lift your spirits.