When all you have is a hammer
Tim Mielants’ De Patrick is a film about loss that happens to be set in a naturist camp
Daughter of the Sun. Diary of a Nudist. Educating Julie. Goldilocks and the Three Bares. The Bashful Bikini. Girls Come Too. Blaze Starr Goes Nudist. Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls. My Bare Lady.
Virtually all American feature films with nudist storylines, from the 1930s to the present (with the possible exception of 1933’s This Nude World, written by lesbian author and upstate New York nudist retreat owner Jan Gay), have been “nudie cutie” exploitation films, primarily appealing to the desires of a heterosexual male audience. These films suggest that nudist camps are overflowing with nubile young women who welcome our gaze as they slather on sunscreen and slap around volleyballs. The plots of these movies often follow a familiar sequence of events. A nervous, skeptical young woman is reluctantly dragged to a nudist camp by her insistent husband or boyfriend. A female university student is encouraged by her male professor to write an essay on nudism. A newspaper editor sends his young secretary to do an undercover story on nudists. A young starlet’s manager encourages her to relax in a nudist camp. In the end, the young women, guided by men, lose their inhibitions and take off their clothes. It’s an incredibly tiresome and misogynistic trope.
Certainly, some of these films are rightly celebrated as cult classics. Doris Wishman’s delirious nudist films, including 1961’s Nude on the Moon, were recently restored and released on Blu-ray in a collaboration between the American Genre Film Archive and Something Weird Video. Harry Kerwin’s unhinged 1968 film How I Became a Nudist, featuring the “Marilyn Monroe of Miami” Maria Stinger, burlesque performer Morgana the Kissing Bandit (both sporting ratty wigs), and a friendly monkey, is one of the more gender-balanced offerings of the genre. But it’s worth considering that these “nudie cutie” films, paired with decades of thinly-veiled pinup girl “nudist” magazines like Sunshine & Health, might have contributed to society’s broad misconceptions regarding naturism.
Although contemporary American filmmakers continue to approach the topic of social nudity as a novelty or punchline, there are several exceptional international films that casually feature naturist characters or spaces in their stories. Director Tim Mielants’ 2019 film De Patrick is such a film. Currently available to view on Alamo’s streaming service, it might well be one of the most engaging films about naturists ever produced. The cinematography is gorgeous, the performances are perfectly understated, and the plot is both engrossing and surprisingly suspenseful.
In the opening scene, the camera pans across the lush Ardennes forest and over an emerald blue lake, where we discover the film’s protagonist, Patrick (Kevin Janssens) serenely floating in the water, completely nude. It’s the last time we see the character smiling and at ease, until much later in the film. Patrick is a thirty-eight year-old man who helps manage a Belgian naturist campground owned by his aging father Rudy (Josse De Pauw) and his blind mother Nelly (Katelijne Damen). He spends his days making repairs around the camp, checking in guests, and caring for his ailing parents. His one true passion seems to be crafting beautiful modern chairs in his workshop. It is here where he discovers that one of his prized hammers is missing, which leads to a frantic search throughout the camp and beyond. The camp’s residents are perplexed by the importance Patrick has attached to this one hammer, but we soon recognize that his missing hammer has become a metaphor for a far greater loss.
The movie is filled with poignant moments, such as when Patrick discovers his elderly father in the bath, fumbling with his oxygen line, and struggling to breathe. As Patrick lifts him out of the tub, the terrified man, still gasping for breath, clings helplessly to his son, and the two quietly melt into a tearful, loving embrace. Dialogue is sparse here, as it is throughout the film, but much is communicated through subtle body language and furtive glances. As Patrick dries off his feeble, trembling father, there’s a quiet acknowledgement of the inevitable. Soon after, as Patrick is watching the orange glow of the evening sunset through the windows of his workshop, he notices flashing blue lights through the trees—the lights of an ambulance. The film’s melancholic tone slowly gives way to a surprisingly tense story of theft, infidelity, betrayal and murder.
De Patrick is a deeply moving film, and it’s also a darkly humorous one. Anyone who’s been involved in the nudist and naturist communities will appreciate scenes like the heated committee meeting, where the scheming Herman (Pierre Bokma), referred to as “the windbag” by Rudy, leads a dozen naked people into a near-revolt over a broken shower head, or the unlikely crisis that unfolds when someone’s prized camping spot is inadvertently assigned to a new visitor, a narcissistic musician named Dustin Apollo (Jemaine Clement).
When Dustin’s manager/girlfriend, Nathalie (Hannah Hoekstra) arrives, she is unaware that she is meeting her companion at a naturist campground. “You’re naked,” the young woman observes, when she encounters Patrick at the camp office. “Is it obligatory?” she asks. “No,” Patrick bluntly replies, “you can do whatever you want.” And so she does. She’s a young blonde woman, yet she’s the antithesis of the young blonde women of the old American nudist camp films. Her purpose is not to serve as the “anxious newbie,” about to unexpectedly discover the exhilaration of a life without clothes. She has no interest in naturism. She’s not going to get naked. Her role in the story, and the impact she has on Patrick, is far more consequential. “We’re the same, Patrick,” Nathalie observes midway through the film. “We have to learn to stand up for ourselves.”
De Patrick doesn’t make a spectacle of nudity. It doesn’t proselytize. It doesn’t promote the naturist idea. And that is its strength. Unlike American films that attempt to incorporate nudism or naturism in their stories, De Patrick doesn’t make the mistake of throwing together a messy, disjointed narrative around a group of nude female bodies. The nudity in De Patrick is incidental. The camera dwells no more on a flopping penis than it does on the steam rising from a cup of coffee, no more on the breasts and buttocks of the aging campers than on the sun-dappled jars of fruit preserves that line the windowsill of Patrick’s cluttered workshop.
De Patrick challenges the simplistic notion that social nudity erases superficial barriers and encourages a greater honesty, or that physical nakedness necessarily correlates with emotional nakedness. These naturists may be naked, but they have plenty to hide. Some of the naturist camp’s residents are burdened by dark secrets. A few are manipulative, deceitful, selfish, and even cruel, particularly in their dealings with the socially withdrawn, largely uncommunicative (and possibly neurodivergent) Patrick. But the characters in De Patrick are not one-dimensional. They are real people, messy and complicated and unpredictable. Dustin Apollo is an arrogant celebrity, but he also takes a sincere interest in Patrick’s plight to recover his beloved hammer. Nathalie seems helplessly trapped by her own circumstances, yet she possesses the clarity to help Patrick emerge from his.
In a particularly striking scene near the end of the film, the camp residents gather within a grove of pine trees, in the morning mist, for a memorial service. They are imperfect humans with physical as well as profound moral and psychological flaws, but in this moment, standing naked in the morning sun, united by a shared grief, they appear as noble as the stately pines that tower over them. It’s a breathtaking scene, and perhaps the only scene in which the nudity of the cast seems at all remarkable. We’ve seen the characters completely nude, physically vulnerable, throughout the entire film, but this is the first time we’ve witnessed their emotional vulnerability.
Ultimately, De Patrick is not a film about naturism. It’s a heartbreaking examination of the complicated ways in which we process the trauma of loss, and a quietly triumphant tale of rising to accept the difficult responsibilities that accompany adulthood—even when we’re not quite prepared to do so. 🪐
Interested in seeing the film? You can stream De Patrick through Alamo Drafthouse here.
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