By Gary M. Kramer.
We (aka Wij), now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Artsploitation Films, is being billed as a shocking story of reckless, amoral youth. The film features pornography and explicit sexuality (involving teens), death, (teenage) prostitution, blackmail, more sex, more death, violence, rape, and more bad behavior.
Little of the film is erotic. Despite a few brief scenes of erotic content, copious nudity, exhibitionism, and naturalism, as well numerous sex scenes, We is not designed to be arousing.
Much of the content is disturbing. There is a “guessing game” where a young woman, blindfolded and naked from the waist down, has to identify what – or who – is being inserted into her behind. Several characters are beaten – one to prompt a miscarriage, another for practically no reason at all. Innocent people are killed. Even a dog, that is stolen, is tied to a railroad track for “art.” (Cruelty to animals is most definitely not art).
We, however, itself is artfully made. Making his feature film debut, writer/director Rene Eller, adapting Elvis Peeters’ novel, constructs the narrative in four parts. “Based on true stories,” Eller recounts what happened (or may have happened) during that fateful summer in Wachtebeke, Belgium through flashbacks and as testimony at a trial. (Whose trial and what crime(s) becomes clearer as the film progresses). This prismatic approach allows viewers different perspectives on the events.
Simon (Tijmen Govaerts) is the first narrator. He is a sensitive teen, in love with Femke (Salomé van Grunsven). He talks about her in the past tense, indicating that she has died. He introduces his friends, Thomas (Aimé Claeys), Liesl (Pauline Casteleyn), Ruth (Maxime Jacobs), Jens (Friso van der Werf), Karl (Folkert Verdoorn), and Ena (Laura Drosopoulos). He explains how they found an abandoned caravan and wanted to earn money. They agree to make pornography but wear masks and costumes so as not to be recognized. We features some explicit sex scenes here which could be viewed as superfluous, pandering, or even exploitative. The film never focuses as closely on sex in its subsequence scenes, in part because Eller maintains a tone that is designed to disturb, not titillate. So the inclusion of unsimulated sex seems a curious choice. But perhaps it is a cue for Simon to ask Femke if they have gone too far with their actions.
Eller lets the viewer decide and shifts the narrative to Ruth, who is not as wealthy as her seven friends. Ruth has a strong rebellious streak as her mother (Christine van Stralen) is nagging her about homework, chores, and other things. Ruth explains in her voiceover that being sexual gave her a form of control – over her body, and over her dull life. She also acknowledges that she had romantic feelings for Simon, and that she wants to feel part of the crowd.
What is most interesting about Ruth, and perhaps why her story is included, is that she claimed she felt she had no choice in going along with the gang’s activities. We only briefly touches on this idea of groupthink, especially since several characters do express emotions at the consequences their amoral actions have at various times. Eller may be putting the onus on the viewer to determine what they think, but his cautionary tale would have had more impact if he had more emphasis not less on this group mindset. (In contrast, One to Another, Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold’s searing tale of highly sexualized teens who commit murder seduced viewers before implicating them, a narrative strategy that might have been effectively applied here).
Ruth asks, “How evil am I?” and while Eller lets that question hang in the air as well, Ruth has far more of a conscience than the next two characters that are presented.
Leisl, marvelously portrayed by Pauline Casteleyn, pushes boundaries, and practically laughs at the deaths she helped cause when the gang’s four females distracted drivers on a busy motorway with their full-frontal nudity. Leisl wants to “feel alive,” and create “reality-art,” by collecting aborted fetuses. Her arc is meant to send shock waves, but it is really Eller’s way of setting up the fourth and most horrifying section of the film.
Thomas is first seen testifying in the courtroom. When his narrative begins, he opens with the troubling accusation that he was sexually abused by the local Mayoral candidate, Mr. Van Langnedonck (Tom Van Bauwel). Thomas is then shown extorting a moped from a dealer, getting into a fight with a college student, and committing other crimes. Eller deliberately suggests that some of Thomas’s testimony is ambiguous or incorrect, which is meant to sucker punch viewers. But it may just numb them. There is enough evidence to suggest the truth, the lies, and the reasons why Thomas is unreliable.
Nevertheless, We holds viewers’ attention. Sometimes, however, it is hard to watch. There are several upsetting scenes of women being sexually abused, beaten, and even scarred – arguably the most disturbing moment has a young girl wake up to find the word “whore” carved in her skin above her genitals. As things escalate, and characters die (or are killed), Eller does engender emotions. He aims to provoke by moralizing and stimulating discussion – not provide any answers. But some truths are inevitable: Parents are bullies. (Especially Thomas’s and Liesl’s). Teenagers want freedom. (Especially Thomas and Liesl). There is nothing new in that regard. But We never sensationalizes its characters or their actions (like Paul Verhoeven would). Eller plays things in a matter-of-fact style that redeems it (but not the characters). Herein lies the strength of what could have been just another jaded youth film.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.