Should the synopsis of any given film include ‘three young men on a journey to lose their virginity with a lot of swearing, fighting and obscene gestures in the process’, you’re likely to presume you know exactly what’s coming. In the last twenty years you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to this kind of crude, often distasteful subject matter. That is until you realise Come As You Are, a 2011 Belgian comedy film directed by Geoffrey Enthoven (you know him right?), is so much more than anything you’ve seen before. Not only does it feature three severely handicapped young men as its leads, but it treats them like genuine normal human beings, rather than the sympathy-soaked caricatures you’re used to.
This point cannot be overstated enough. Lars, Philip and Josef are a group of friends desperate for that which every young man regardless of background or upbringing simply, and sometimes secretly, craves: sex. The film therefore begins with them hatching a plan to journey to Spain, wherein lies a brothel specialising in their needs, on their first ‘independent’ holiday together as friends.
Lars has a brain tumour that can’t be cured and is getting worse every day, paralysing him from the waist down; Philip is a paraplegic whose mouth more than makes up for the lack of mobility in the rest of his body (it is from him you will hear some of the vilest tones of speech); and Josef is almost completely blind – despite being the only one of the three able to walk, he would be lost without their direction (at one point in the film, almost tragically). Despite clear reservations from their parents, the boys eventually set off on their trip with the help of Claude, a heavy-handed carer whose appearance is almost as initially deceiving as her three companions.
As you can imagine then, a task that isn’t completely straightforward in the first place for a healthy male becomes – as this film would have you believe – more of an epic mission of self-discovery, with enough twists and turns in its tale to prevent it from falling into that area of cliché from which you feel it is in constant danger.
I waited in expectant disappointment for a scene in which the boys would be picked on by arrogant thugs who thought themselves superior, or one in which they would tell of their emotional struggle through their condition. Such a scene never came. This is not a film asking you to feel sorry for these boys – it is a film merely reminding you that they are, in fact, boys. They have boyish needs as well, and you can bet it isn’t the kind of need that requires everyone to weep in their presence.
Yet you will almost certainly find yourself having to wipe away a tear from your eye on more than one occasion over the course of their journey. For all of the comedy the boys inject into their situation, the reality of their condition is never treated dismissively, with occasional serious exchanges complementing the light-hearted nature of the movie almost to perfection. One such scene relatively early in the film sees Lars’ sister, who teases and fights with him constantly, ask him straight whether or not he’s going to die soon. When Lars confirms that he will, they share a beautiful moment as she tells him she doesn’t want to fight any more and they hug. It is a conversation that, despite its briefness, becomes all the more poignant later on.
If the film teaches anything, it is that disability is no more than a physical condition; it is not defining of someone’s personality, so long as you don’t try to make it such, and if you tried doing so with these characters they’d see through you immediately. Should you manage to overcome your snobbish sense of taste rather than deciding beforehand that this film has none due to its use of crude words and humour, I promise you will find yourself pleasantly surprised. That rare joy is what an open mind can give you, and the trio of Lars, Philip and Josef are the best examples of it.
10 / 10.