The bassist’s arm is paralyzed, the guitarist is half-deaf, and the singer is a speech-impaired psychopath: this is the stuff of rock legend. At least, that’s the hope of three “handicapped losers” who show up on a famous author’s doorstep one morning and try to enlist him for their group. With vague plans to glom onto his notoriety, these thirtysomething lowlifes offer their drummer slot to the novelist, Dries (played by Dries Van Hagen), and Dries, for obscure reasons of his own, accepts. So begins this cinematic descent into squalor, brutality, and debasement from the cheery European nexus that gave us Man Bites Dog, Funny Games, and the stylish nightmare Irreversible.
Based on a book by cult Belgian author Herman Brusselmans, Koen Mortier’s feature debut pits Flanders’s world of haut-bourgeois letters against its lowest social rung—that of psycho skinhead Koen (Norman Baert), deaf junkie Ivan (Sam Louwyck), and gay, Oedipally besotted Jan (Joris Van Der Speeten). The three unemployed louts bicker, fight, and rehearse with each other when they’re not busy either assaulting women, screaming at spouses, or strapping their parents to beds. Each of them is a Ramones song come to life.
Exploiting their various disabilities as a gimmick, they prepare for what Koen says, ominously, will be their only performance. Dries begins attending their rehearsals, visiting their homes, sizing things up. Finally, he announces he’s in—his qualifying handicap being an inability to play drums—and gives the crew of gynophobes a truly inspired band name: the Feminists.
Mortier’s film abounds with sick but often irresistible black comedy. (“With a kitchen knife?” Koen exclaims upon hearing that the guitarist stabbed his wife. “A slut like that you go after with a drill!”) The crew is meant to be so backward that they’re actually introduced in reverse motion: bicycling side by side in the opening credits, they backtrack down the overcast streets of Brussels and pause for an impromptu assault, Koen’s fists flying up from the victim’s head.
Taking what we might call a boyish glee in all the murder and sodomy, Mortier deploys multiple exposures, shifting film speeds, flash editing, lurid lighting—all excusable because they make this world look as unhinged as its occupants. While its tone and tricks show a significant debt to Gaspar Noé, the film goes Noé one better: instead of inverting the film’s time sequence (à la Irreversible), it inverts space, showing the most psychotic member’s private life as occurring, literally, upside down.
When they begin jamming to what is effectively their theme song, Devo’s “Mongoloid,” the Feminists reveal themselves to be geniuses of the genre (due in no small part to songs contributed by Belgium’s top-notch thrash-metal band, Millionaire). That genre, while never explicitly referenced, is clearly punk rock. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its rendering of punk’s style, sound, and seedy milieu, showing in explicit detail how lost souls might redeem themselves in one explosive half-hour in the spotlight.
As each character struts, rapes, and vomits his hour upon the stage, the film reveals its true villain to be Dries, an amoral monster out of Camus who idly manipulates these pathetic creatures—seeking weak spots, prying, poking, and probing like a vivisectionist. Or more to the point, like a novelist. In one metanarrative moment we see Dries alone at his laptop, typing lines that the next scene reveal to be dialogue in a vicious exchange of words—implying the true significance of Dries’s presence. As the film follows downcast characters to their various graphically bleak ends, it pauses to show them a level of compassion that reveals just how little of their lives Dries actually sees. Like Haneke, Noé, and other predecessors, Mortier uses ultraviolence to indict various modern agents of dehumanization—Belgian poverty, racism, class hatred, misogyny—but none so much as the voyeuristic act of the artist himself.