Working for a porn festival will teach you that people have their limits.
The Stranger's amateur porn festival, HUMP Film Fest, is in its 17th year. We've accepted films from nearly every kink. We infamously screened a submission where someone shit a solid stick of butter, made pancakes with that butter, and then ate the shit-butter-pancakes. When we tell people that we'll accept anything into the festival, we mostly mean it. But there have always been a few hard rules at HUMP: No poop, no animal sex, no minors.
The new 70-minute Belgian comedy Mother Schmuckers had its world premiere during Sundance's final Friday-night slot last night—it's the first Belgian film to screen in the Sundance Midnight program—and it breaks two of HUMP's hard rules. (It doesn't break the "no minors" rule.)
As a verified pornographic jurist, I'll say that many scenes in Mother Schmuckers are beyond the pale for even our beyond-the-pale porn festival, which premieres its 2021 line-up this evening, complete with a grandpa eating corn off a sounding rod attached to two dicks. I bring this up to say that I understand why Mother Schmuckers is so divisive.
Still. I have to report that I fall into the "Mother Schmuckers is good" side of the debate, and I think everyone who disagrees can eat shit—which, incidentally, is how this movie starts. Where Pink Flamingos ends, Mother Schmuckers begins.
This debut feature from directors Harpo and Lenny Guit isn't complicated, although it is obtuse. Two miserable sons live in Brussels with their sex-worker mother and her cute dog named January Jack. While trying to feed their mom a pan of fried shit—and failing to convince her it's a pan of steak—the two brothers lose January Jack. Mom tells them she's had enough. The steak-shit is one thing, but the lost dog is too much. They have 24 hours to find the dog. What follows is a movie of high-energy, gross mistakes. There are maggot-burgers, bestiality orgies (it's a movie, it's fake, it can't hurt you), and eventually, French star Mathieu Amalric appears to play the boys' father.
Focusing on the gross-out elements of Mother Schmuckers is to miss the forest for the trees—although in this case, the trees are made of vomit, so I see why it's easy to do. What is so surprising about Mother Schmuckers is its remarkable clowning. I'm not talking about honk-honk red-nose clowning, which is the only type of clowning Americans seem to understand, but rather European clowning—the Jacques Lecoq bouffon type of clowning, or maybe just run-of-the-mill contemporary commedia dell'arte. It's hard to pin down the Guits' physical training because there isn't much out there about the Guits.
An American critic already compared this to Jackass. That take correctly picks up that physicality guides Mother Schmuckers' scenes, but Jackass is jackassery, and the Guits' are classical idiots. If you happened to go to Europe to study French clowning—as I have, lol—you'll know many of these scenes to be regular clowning exercises. These dummies do them very, very well.
But I get why audiences will focus on the puke and shit. A few years ago, there was a submission for HUMP that featured vomit play, and I've never seen a submission divide a room like this one. Half loved it. Half wanted to riot. The fest has no explicit rule against vomit, but we spent a good hour debating whether to keep it. I argued we should because it was done well and it wasn't too chunky and I actually thought it was kind of cute. But we landed on not screening it because some people's reactions were too immediate and inescapable and visceral. We worried we were signing the stage manager up for nightly vomit clean-up.
Mother Schmuckers is the same debate. Half of its viewers won't get over the gross bits. That's fine. But don't confuse a gag reflex with taste.