Planet Film, 24 Frames at a Time

By Nicholas Royle

vanishing-george-sluizer.jpgThe Vanishing, 1988

A striking new series of books celebrates the glories of worldwide national cinemas, not least that of the Belgians

Not only is there a strong tradition of both documentary and feature film production in Belgium, but for all its problems and the difficulties it faces in terms of raising adequate funding, Belgian cinema is going through a period of extraordinary quality. At the forefront, Liège-based Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, are internationally recognised for their powerfully naturalistic award-winning dramas, while Lucas Belvaux’s conceptually ambitious Trilogy of 2002 was a tour-de-force. And historically, the cult classic work of Harry Kümel is enjoying a resurgence of interest, with a DVD release of Malpertuis planned, following the 2003 DVD release of Daughters of Darkness, his best-known film, Kümel contributes a preface to The Cinema of the Low Countries, edited by Ernest Mathijs and one title in Wallflower Press’ ambitious new series ’24 Frames’, with each volume examining two dozen key works from a given filmic territory over 24 chapters, written by a variety of film critics, media historians, lecturers, and professors. Mathijs does an excellent job of tackling Daughters of Darkness and the Dardennes are covered in a fine essay on Rosetta by Wouter Hessels. Elsewhere, what for many casual viewers might be the best-known Belgian film of the last fifteen years, Man Bites Dog (1992), is the subject of a chapter by Frank Lafond. This astonishing black and white mock-doc, directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, in which a camera crew shadows a psychopath, would have caused less controversy now, in these days of so-called reality TV. The extent to which the viewer is drawn into a certain voyeuristic complicity remains the film’s main strength.

The publication schedule of the volume may have precluded consideration of Belvaux’s landmark Trilogy mentioned above, an interlocking series of three films featuring the same characters in overlapping stories shot in three distinct generic styles: thriller, comedy and melodrama. This marvellously realised project was more ambitious and in some ways more artistically successful than the late Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy.

And overall, Belgian cinema seems remarkably diverse and dynamic. Take, at one end of the scale, Erik Van Looy’s 2003 thriller The Alzheimer Case, a Belgian/Dutch co-production. Accomplished Hollywood-style product, its glossy surfaces are lit in shimmering greens and blues. Still, the story of corruption in high places and police forces at loggerheads with each other naturally struck a chord with Belgian audiences, given the revelations of recent years (also interesting was the fact that a key plot twist in this Dutch-language film turns on a French pun: néant, (nothingness) and neon).

Yet the Belgian director who did more than any other to attempt to reconcile differences between the Flemish and Walloon communities was André Delvaux who died in 2002. His 1968 masterpiece, Un Soir, Un Train, deposits three men in a village where no one can understand a word they say, and vice versa; a feeling of unease becomes gradually more menacing as the film slides further into downbeat fantasy. It’s impossible not to read the difficulties in communication as reflective of Belgium’s divided cultural identity.

Kümel and Delvaux have explored some similar territory in their films. As the surrealist influence in visual art faded away somewhat or perhaps was appropriated, diluted into the general visual culture and drained of its deeper, layered qualities, towards the end of the twentieth century, it could be argued that Kümel and Delvaux, with their unique appreciation of the strange and uncanny, kept the tradition alive, in film at least.

Kümel’s lesbian vampire picture, Daughters of Darkness (1971), which stars Delphine Seyrig as the Countess Elisabeth Bathory, is packed with references to Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad and the canvases of Belgian symbolist / expressionist painter Léon Spilliaert. Although Kümel denies any direct inspiration from another Belgian artist, the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux, it’s hard not to think of the latter’s nudes and dunes when watching scenes shot on the Ostende seashore with pulchritudinous German actress Andrea Rau. Kümel encourages the popular perception of Daughters of Darkness as exploitation cinema. He only approached Seyrig, he says, in the hope that she would turn him down, allowing him to abandon the project. But the Marienbad references – in both films Seyrig plays an enigmatic character who may or may not have been a guest before at a grand hotel – combined with the direct quotations from Spilliaert’s paintings Femme sur la Digue (1907) and Galeries Royales d’Ostende (1908) confirm that this is far more than just a cynical knock-off.  

In private and in public, Kümel remains a forthright and acerbic critic of certain other Belgian filmmakers, among them the Dardennes. ‘The less said about the Dardenne brothers the better,’ Kümel has said. ‘I detest hand-held naturalism.’ That said, Le Fils (The Son, 2002), the Dardennes’ third feature, is intense and claustrophobic, an extraordinarily powerful study of the complex relationship between a grieving father (Olivier Gourmet) and a joinery apprentice (Morgan Marinne). The camera literally follows Gourmet for most of the film. We spend more time looking at the back of his head and shoulders than any other part of his body.  

However, when it comes to The Cinema of the Low Countries, Belgium is only part of the story. The book also covers the Netherlands and Luxembourg, allowing for coverage of George Sluizer’s uniquely chilling The Vanishing and two Paul Verhoeven films, among other delights.

Publication coincides with that of three other titles in the 24 Frames series, covering Italy, Latin America and Japan /Korea. The latter includes an illuminating essay on Takashi Miike’s startling Audition (2000), while Sergio Leone makes it into the Italy study with Christopher Frayling’s excellent piece on A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The entire series is recommended for cinema academics and film fans alike.

Nicholas Royle is currently writing a script for the Recorded Picture Company adapted from his novel The Director’s Cut (Abacus). His latest novel is Antwerp (Serpent’s Tail).

The Cinema of the Low Countries, edited by Ernest Mathijs; The Cinema of Italy, edited by Giorgio Bertellini; The Cinema of Japan and Korea, edited by Justin Bowyer and The Cinema of Latin America, edited by Alberto Elena and Marina Díaz López, are all published by Wallflower Press at £16.99 pbk, £45 hbk.