Come As You Are (Hasta la Vista)

Belgium (2011) Dir. Geoffrey Enthoven

Three Flemish men in their late twenties are all handicapped – Lars (Gilles De Schrijver) has an inoperable brain tumour, Philip (Robrecht Vanden Thoren) is totally paraplegic and Jozef (Tom Audenaert) is partially sighted. They are all equally frustrated with having barren sex lives. After hearing from a fellow paraplegic about a Spanish brothel called El Cielo that caters for the handicapped Philip suggests to the others that they arrange a trip to lose their virginities once and for all.

No doubt the initial reaction to reading this summary is to think “this is The Inbetweeners Movie with wheelchairs”. Well, think again; despite the potentially tawdry premise this is actually a rather sensitive road trip/buddy movie that was inspired by a BBC documentary about a man named Asta Philpot (an associate producer of this film) who did the very same thing our trio of intrepid invalids dream of doing. There is some humour brought about by their afflictions but nothing too upsetting or tasteless. If anything it stays within the parameters of a pretty conventional movie while being rather bold with its subject matter.

It seems the main objective is not to encourage sympathy for the three leads, rather exercise a little understanding from those of us who are not so physically limited in our lives. Their bodies might be afflicted but their minds clearly aren’t. Keeping the brothel aspect of the trip from their families, they receive permission to take their desired “wine tour” through France then on to Spain, with an approved nurse and carer to drive them. They are all set to go until Lars has a check up which shows his tumour is getting worse and his time limited which forces the family to refuse the trip. Undeterred the lads decide to go anyway without the knowledge of their families, but with a different chaperone in the form of ex-nurse Claude (Isabelle de Hertogh), a rather rotund and ungraceful French woman and the antithesis of the type of women the lads are hoping to score with in Spain.

The early stages of the trip are uncomfortable with Philip and Lars referring to Claude as “Mammoth” while Jozef has to translate for her. Things come to a head when Philip’s rudeness causes friction between the friends and Claude forces her hand to regain a more amiable spirit between them all. A mutual agreement sees things turn for the better until the families track the runaways down and temporarily put an end to the trip but Lars manages to talk his parents around and the quartet are again on their way to Spain.

Perhaps not as confrontational or as probing into the lives of the handicapped and their sex lives as some may expect it to be but the main thing is that the temptation to use this as a gimmick for broad and tacky comedy is thankfully resisted. Some people might find this lack of bite or predictable ribald humour is a missed opportunity, but the truth is after a few minutes into the film, one doesn’t even notice the disabilities and they are just as accepted on screen as their able bodied counterparts.

Director Geoffrey Enthoven did actually audition a number of disabled people for the main roles but ended up casting three able bodied actors, who, it has to be said, are all exceptional convincing in their roles. Robert Vanden Thoren (Philip) has the toughest job, acting with just his head the only moveable body part, while using his mouth for limited physical acts like typing. To offset any mock sympathy, his character is the most unpleasant of the trio – acerbic, rude, foulmouthed and bossy. For someone who can’t move he really likes to throw his weight around. Perhaps inwardly he is jealous of the other two (and other people) for their mobility and uses his caustic tongue to lash out and taking Lars’s progress with one Spanish girl as an act of disloyalty.

Lars is the one who is on the quickest decline of health yet ironically is the most active of the three. While being the most aware of his condition he sometimes shares Philip’s moments of verbal rudeness and anger, although he is far more sensitive. Gilles De Schrijver has the pretty boy looks with his shock of blonde hair and beaming smile but conveys the depth of the real effect of Lars’s condition kick in with nuanced credibility. Meanwhile Jozef is the physical labourer of the group as well as being its heart. Thankfully not reduced to bumping into things or mistaking one object for another for a cheap laugh, Tom Audenaert possess the innate ability to take his put upon character through a life changing journey, quirks and all, without losing any of his integrity of likeability.

The most interesting character in many ways is Claude, whom we learn is on parole after a year long jail term for an attack on her cheating husband. Starting off as surly and insular as the lads, she too manages to find a way to move on her from her personal issues to find love in the most unexpected place. Isabelle de Hertogh is the epitome of the big woman with the big heart which shines through in her portrayal as “Mammoth” and proves to be a prefect fit with her male co-stars.

Arguably more drama than comedy Come As You Are presents us with a unique story told in a somewhat conservative manner that is both uplifting yet sad in its own way. It deserves credit for not exploiting the disabled aspect and presenting the cast as human beings. A rather charming little film all told.