By Emma Street
Imagine a remake of The Inbetweeners Movie. In Dutch! Where the guys have never been on holiday without their parents before and decide to visit a brothel in Spain! Only – get this – Will is blind. And Simon has terminal cancer and is confined to a wheelchair. And Neil (or possibly Jay) is paralysed from the neck down. And they’re being driven around in van by Nessa from Gavin and Stacey. Who’s Belgian!
This almost certainly wasn’t the original pitch for Geoffrey Enthoven’s Come As You Are, which is released in the UK today. I did keep finding myself making comparisons between the characters in the two films while I was watching it though. It’s particularly true of Philip, the Jay/Neil character. He is gawky and belligerent and doesn’t let his quadriplegia get in the way of occasionally acting like a total wanker.
The three main characters are Philip, Lars and Jozef (Robrecht Vanden Thoren , Gilles de Schryver and Tom Audenaert). All three are cared for by their parents and are desperate for some independence. They are also fairly desperate to get their end away. Philip has heard about a brothel which caters for ‘people like them’ and persuades his friends to make a road trip.
There are no big plot twists here. The film is straightforward and predictable. We know where our heroes’ character arcs are headed. Which is fine, because the pleasure is watching them get there.
Aside from the odd tasteless “Look at the blind man! He can’t see stuff” joke, this is a funny film and the humour comes from the interaction of three guys who display a close bond and genuine warmth towards one another.
For the most part, the hurdles placed in their way seem small. Oh no their parents might say no! But they say yes! Josef’s fallen in the river! Phew he’s out again! Claude the van driver seems grumpy! But she’s nice really!
However, you are never far from reminders of the enormous hurdles that dominate their lives. Philip can move nothing except his head and his right hand. Though Lars may have the pretty looks and the upper body movement that Philip lacks, he only has a short time to live and risks dying a virgin.
The story is based on the real life experiences of Asta Philpot, a British man with Arthrogryposis who had his first sexual experience in a brothel in Spain. He was the subject of the BBC documentary “For One Night Only” in 2007 in which he travelled with two other men – one blind, one in a wheelchair – in order to make another visit.
Philpot’s companions obviously provided the outline for their fictional counterparts. One’s an older guy who needs a magnifier to see anything and the other one’s a pretty young lad in a wheelchair although their stories were significantly changed in order to fit the film’s narrative.
Remarkably, the most ludicrous and improbable aspect of Come As You Are is completely backed up in Philpot’s documentary. This is the fact that the girls in the brothel are unbelievably, head-turningly gorgeous. Seriously, Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman could work there and nobody would even look at her twice.
Philpot is a writer and Executive Producer on Come As You Are. He is possibly the only disabled person involved in the film’s production.
All the protagonists are played by able-bodied actors, which is disappointing but probably difficult to avoid. It is a tall order to expect all quadriplegic roles to be given to quadriplegic actors. Of course, if you are an actor with severe movement impairment, it must be pretty galling to see a plum role like Philip given to an able-bodied guy. Your acting choices are going to pretty limited in any case. Sure, you might be offered work as an extra on EastEnders or as “second juror from the left” in some Sunday-night murderfest but no one’s going to be auditioning you for one of Andrew Davies’ costume dramas any time soon. And that dream of being in one of the Hobbit films? Forget it.
It’d be a dangerous road to go down, though. What about Josef’s role? Do we really want to live in a world where only registered blind actors can play the roles of vision-impaired characters? A world without Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman? Or Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil? Think about it.
Philpot is an outspoken campaigner for the right of disabled people to have an active sexual life, even if this means paying for sex. He advocates the Netherlands model where disabled people are helped to find suitable sex workers by groups often funded by the Local Authorities.
It’s a controversial subject. If you’re generally OK with the idea of people paying for sex then you’re unlikely to begrudge someone with disabilities using the services. But plenty of people aren’t OK with it, still. Are they likely to make an exception for someone who may never experience sex any other way?
It’s not a question that Come As You Are seeks to tackle. This isn’t a political journey for our heroes. It is a deeply personal one. It’s a coming of age story which shows that wine and sex and having a laugh with your mates don’t become less important when you have a disability. When you have fewer opportunities and possibly not much time, they can be the most important things in the world.
Come As You Are is released in UK cinemas today.