“Ne Me Quitte Pas”, directed by Niels van Koevorden and Sabine Lubbe Bakker, takes place in the south of Belgium, where middle-aged Marcel and his slightly older friend, Bob Spaenhoven, struggle to overcome the hardships of life in a symbiotic relationship with each other and with their bottles of alcohol. This might sound tragic but the story is rather tragi-comic, a slapstick documentary that reminds one of Emir Kusturica’s films, with characters fitting archetypes and odd but funny turns of events.
The storyline is simple. Marcel’s wife finds another man and she decides to leave him after 16 years of marriage. Marcel is heartbroken. He makes a pact with Bob to commit suicide together. Bob knows the perfect place to put the plan into action, a tree in the forest, a place which makes him feel peaceful and serene, precisely how he wants to leave this world. “There starts the path to my tree of life,” he says while walking along with the camera to show this place of greatness. But in the spirit of all of their symbolic and melodramatic attempts, the walk ends with the discovery that the tree has been cut. This kind of misfortune finds the two at every step they take, like signature marks of their lives.
Marcel’s biggest fear is losing his children. Bob is already one step ahead of him. His son is estranged and hardly visits. Marcel’s children come visit him once a week and he wants his place to be welcoming for them. But the alcohol interferes, as usual. Everyone can empathize with a father’s love for his children but Marcel’s alcoholic trips enhance a feeling of predictability, and at the same time curiosity, about what’s going to happen next.
When, during a visit the children want to go to a local carnival, Marcel decides to bring them. Next, the camera follows the kids lined up behind him, wearing masks and walking through a crowd. Soon enough you realize that the masked crowd is not just any section of the carnival, but the carnival party at the local bar. Marcel did bring the children to the party but couldn’t help answering his other call in life. He holds the kids with one hand and with the other holds a glass of beer which is clearly not the first one. It is amazing how this scene manages to be incredibly sad and incredibly funny at the same time.
Both characters’ openness and their candid remarks give a sense of their vulnerability. Marcel and Bob might lack many things in their lives but honesty is clearly not one of them. They are easy to empathize with; one moment you feel for them and the next you cannot help laughing.
Halfway through the film, after “revisiting lunch” several times, Marcel concludes that his drinking has gone too far, so he decides to “cure himself”. Together with Bob they go to the hospital and talk to a doctor. Admirable attempt, but the scene resembles an absurd confessional set-up in which they both confess their alcoholic sins, as if facing the possibility of absolution.
The leitmotif of their misadventures is that they most often result in genuine bewilderment and conclude with a fine piece of handy pocket wisdom. “If you never feel bad, you don’t know when you’re feeling good,” says Bob and you cannot really contradict him. In general they approach with solemnity what for most seems self-evident – whether it’s a bag of spaghetti that can be boiled in six minutes or a dramatic turn of events.
You never see them work or do anything other than deal with their personal affairs and questions. In fact, the gem of the film lies in the characters’ humanity and wish to make things right in their lives in juxtaposition with their daily drinking escapades, which unavoidably land them in tragic-comic situations. There is a certain circularity in this but it never feels like a cliché. In fact this circularity adds to the story. The turn of events is predictable in itself, but its concrete actions are unpredictable. You expect them to mess up but you never know how.
Ne Me Quitte Pas also has no distinct feeling of a documentary. Just like in a fiction feature, where the audience accepts the conventions and the character the way they are, this film has a direct “take it or leave it” feel. There is no argument or point to be made and the filmmakers avoid easy clichéd portrayals by not taking sides and not mediating the understanding through a fixed framing of the story. In fact the filmmakers’ presence is hardly ever felt and everyone in the film seems not to acknowledge the presence of the camera.
Marcel and Bob are simply being themselves and there is never a dull moment. It is difficult to imagine them any different and also difficult to imagine one without the other. It is like they’re bound to stay this way, meant always to attempt but never succeed._