Koen Mortier / Belgium / 2007
One of the commercial highlights of the 2007 Rotterdam Film Festival was Ex Drummer, a visually impacting film from Belgium that allegedly kicked off a bidding war. In line with a number of other Belgian film-makers (the Dardenne brothers, Bouli Lanners, Gustave de Kervern & Benoît Delépine etc.) it shows off the country as being abysmally crap and blackly humorous. Adapted from a highly compelling source novel (Ex Drummer by Herman Brusselmans), unsurprisingly for the buyers, it had an extremely strong start. Thinking about it, this was a little conspicuous a competitor to be in the VPRO Tiger Awards and certainly even a hint of commercial prowess may have biased the jury against the film. What could have caused this rift between commercial potential and artistic endeavour?
First, about that storming opening. Dries, a famous Belgian author based in Ostend, relates how and why three handicapped musicians paid him a visit. They are looking for a drummer for their band and have chosen him because he's famous. The film starts with Dries narrating the situation explaining how he is able to feel both happiness and sadness at the same time – a state that by the end will seem most appropriate for the character. Then we are shown in reverse how the three band-mates got to Dries' flat while the credits play. The intro credits are all in the form of advertisements, or shop signs, or a magazine on the floor, or even black marker on one of the principals faces. The title of the film, for example, is shaded glass on an internal window.
This backwards device works well because it gives some back-story to the band members as they each are shown coming from their respective homes and getting into a fight with a bus driver on the way (he knocks two of them off their bikes). In fact the only character who doesn't have the back-story is Dries – we must accept that he is some famous author. It's a real rock and roll opening that is almost identical in spirit to the start of Trainspotting, where another deadbeat bunch of characters are set up in an 'in-yer-face' punky style. Watch the beginning of either film and you are instantly given a byline into what these characters are about.
After that magnificent opener, shorts and commercials director Koen Mortier basically just has to make sure that the character acting works because the plot from the novel, whilst simple, is so strong. Which is exactly what he does with massive dashes of coarse humour and lots of raw music and concert footage.
Of course using 'massive dashes' to describe the humour translates that the film is obsessed by genitals. The leader of a competing band is called Big Dick, for example, and when Dries goes to visit him the origin of his name arises in conversation. Instead of unzipping his fly, Big Dick asks his wife to show them her elongated herniated vagina. Cue a very similar scene to A Cock and Bull Story with Big Dick and Dries inspecting the handiwork from the inside. It's disgusting and hilarious all together.
It's all bleakly comic as Dries (and Mortier) burrows into the lives of these deadbeats for his own ends but unlike Trainspotting where Renton is actually one of the addicts that film follows, the focus here is Dries, an exploitative outsider and confirmed success complete with a beautiful open minded girlfriend and talent. To scrutinise these people Dries has to give them space and not get too involved, a ploy that carries disastrous consequences. He does make some amends but the how and why are totally irrelevant except to give the film an explosive ending after the competition. This leads bloodily to the finale where Mortier uses another trick which falls flat, this time a succession of monologues. In comparison to the spontaneous start this seems like a pointless explanation into the how and why of some of the characters. Dries has spent the entire film digging into them all, only for yet another confirmation that they are all bastards.
So, should one judge a film from an outstanding beginning. Probably not, but the people selecting our films for cinema distribution do. Ex Drummer is an anarchic funny debut feature, full of grubby vitality but not quite as clever as it wants to be. Expect to be raving about it sometime soon.