I feel like I’ve just seen the first movie that — future developments pending — might work better in the breach, so to speak, than in the observance. So to speak.
What do I mean by this? Well, Nude Tuesday is a New Zealand comedy that distinguishes itself in a very Down Under culture-jamming sort of way: It is performed by the cast in a “language” that is mostly gibberish. There are a few words that were agreed upon in advance, for consistency — yaah and ne, for example; chula for “thanks” — but beyond that, the actors are working more with feeling rather than concrete meaning as they deliver their improvised nonsense dialogue.
It’s all the brainchild of director Armağan Ballantyne and actor, filmmaker, and costar here Jackie van Beek. (Van Beek cowrote, codirected, and costarred in the wonderful comedy The Breaker Upperers a few years ago.) Van Beek wrote the script — more a general outline, it would seem — and then, after production was completed, another writer, comedian Julia Davis (as an actor: Fighting with My Family, Phantom Thread), came in and wrote the subtitles, based on nothing but her own interpretation of what she saw onscreen (she didn’t have a script). Van Beek likens the process to the Downfall meme, which has seen thousands of parody videos of a raging meltdown by Adolf Hitler in the German film Downfall rendered, in many cases, absolutely hilarious with new subtitles that transform the object of his fury into something ridiculously mundane or petty.
But here’s the thing: the Downfall meme came about organically, as fans played around with the film, and it’s tough to force something like that happen. And the meme works because the parody subtitles play against the historical reality of what is being depicted and the emotional intensity of the actors’ performances, not only that of Bruno Ganz as Hitler but also those playing his generals as they try to placate him.
The latter is not the case here, and it reinforces the fact of the former. The subtitles written by Davis could not be a more reasonable fit for the script crafted by van Beek. This is a wacky yet heartfelt comedy about a couple whose marriage is on the rocks who attend, rather reluctantly (they were given a gift certificate), a new-age couples’ retreat where they will examine their relationship, explore their sexuality, and hopefully reconnect with each other. Hippie-dippy touchy-feely types will come in for gentle ribbing, but our somewhat square protagonists will feel the sex positivity anyway. You would get the gist of it without the subtitles, which only reinforce that gist. There would be no appreciable difference to this film if it were, in fact, in one of the actual Nordic languages the gibberish is clearly meant to ape.
That basic story is… fine. It’s very much in a middle-of-the-road, not-as-daring-as-it-thinks-it-is indie vein, but the performances are fun, wholly engaged with the gibberish joke, and brave. (They are not fooling around with that title: the finale is full frontal all around.) Van Beek (What We Do in the Shadows) and the terrific Australian actor Damon Herriman (Peter Rabbit 2, “The Eleven O’Clock”) play the couple, and they mine a lot of pathos and pain out of the collapse of their marriage. (Herriman’s Bruno — nod to Ganz? — throwing cans in a supermarket in a fit of pique is a small wonder of funny physical rage. The befuddlement of van Beek’s Laura is a marvel of underplayed misery.) Comedy treasure Jemaine Clement (Brad’s Status, The Lego Batman Movie) is the retreat’s leader, Bjorg, which he goes to town with in exactly the way you’d expect.
Exactly what you expect is exactly what you get here… which is exactly what you should not expect, given its concept. I was drawn in by the gibberish idea, and by the cast, and yet I almost gave up half an hour in. There are two strands of comedy at work here, but there’s no tension between them, as there must be: they are rowing companionably in the same direction when they should be fighting over the oars and pushing one another into the water, which is preferably shark-infested.
The press kit for the film mentions “multiple versions” with “subtitles created by contributing writers globally after release.” I will be very curious to see those! The template here is hugely intriguing, and this is potentially a work of cinematic chaos that is only at its beginning.
But I’m much more eager to see what fans do with their own subtitles once they can get their hands on the movie. I hope the filmmakers will be okay with people sharing those online. Those will be the breach that could be the ultimate making of a crowdsourced cult classic.