The line between documentary and fictional comedy is flummoxed to trite ends in Ne Me Quitte Pas, a mockumentary buddy movie that revels in the often drunken antics of two withered men living together at the southern edge of Belgium. Both are sad sacks, but the worse of the pair is Marcel, who was separated from his children after his wife filed for divorce. Bob, then, is his conciliator, a friend and drinking buddy whose personal life isn’t so much stable as in permanent retreat from potential hardship. At Bob’s cabin in the woods, Marcel drowns his sorrows, night after night, filling the time in between engaging in idle conversation with Bob and hoping to get his kids back. Though the film clearly aspires toward a comedic tone comparable to 24 Hour Party People, it seldom finds content worthy of that ambition.
Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden open with a quote from Samuel Beckett that reads: “It is not every day that we are needed.” It’s a blank irony given that Marcel and Bob are never needed by anyone except each other, but the film’s ethos seems more in sync with Charles Bukowski, particularly the German-American novelist’s claim that “some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” Indeed, the filmmakers latch onto the men’s loosening grip on reality with leaching glee, especially in the film’s first half as Marcel ends nights by quite literally falling down drunk. Subsequently, Marcel’s mid-film bid for sobriety and recovery suggests less a meaningful depiction of alcoholism than an insincere aside; it’s a development to provide the characters a new setting, not an examination of their condition. When a doctor says to Marcel, “You must never drink again or you’ll relapse into the nightmare,” it’s an entirely risible suggestion since Ne Me Quitte Pas ceaselessly milks the pair’s exploits for morbid guffaws.
On top of these unconvincing dramatic stakes, the filmmakers opt for baseline minimalism by shooting each interaction with a mostly stable camera that places Bob and Marcel in conversation in shallow spaces, primarily at tables placed against walls. The seemingly improvised dialogue meanders around tales of men sharpening saws or what condiments Bob has in his cupboard. Given the affectless presentation and lazy-day pacing, the filmmakers are evidently aiming for a comedic tone in proximity to the early films of Aki Kaurismäki or Jim Jarmusch. Those filmmakers innovated a certain sort of oddball, slacker cinema that gave an edge to inaction, as in Down by Law, when a chance meeting with an Italian prisoner cheekily transforms the Jarmusch film’s entire narrative trajectory. Ne Me Quitte Pas contains nothing of the sort; even while attending a dance party with his kids, Marcel slumps sullenly on the sidelines, wearing a poorly assembled wizard costume. It’s a cheap laugh, at best, one produced from recognizing a situation like Marcel’s and not the specificity of his boredom in particular.
The entirety of Ne Me Quitte Pas seems increasingly constructed around such ill-begotten attempts at dark humor. The most egregious choice comes in the form of Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart,” which appears not once, but twice on the film’s soundtrack without discernible significance or reason, other than to be an unexpected song choice. The track’s deployment during a final scene adds insult to injury by commencing after one of the men pukes off screen. Outwardly drier in its sense of humor than a whiskey neat, Ne Me Quitte Pas is actually quite tepid, watered down by feigned provocations and a deliberately dispassionate interest in the lived conditions of its protagonists.