Belgian director Fabrice du Welz discusses his latest feature, Alléluia (2014), starring Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas. Fabrice’s films include the in-progress Ardennes trilogy of Calvaire (2004) and Alléluia, which are two horror films featuring Laurent Lucas that explore the theme of “mad love” in the Belgian region. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014.
I was wondering if you could give some context for how you came across the original story of the Lonely Hearts killers, the films that have been made from it previously, and how Alléluia fits into your Ardennes trilogy?
Fabrice du Welz: Well, the story that happened is like that – it was circonstanciel, as we say in French. I met a very famous French-Belgian actress called Yolande Moreau in a festival and I said, “I want to write a part for you. I want to put you in a movie as a very psychotic, cruel, bitchy character.” And she was laughing, saying, “Yeah, go ahead, it would be great.” So the same week, I was watching Deep Crimson (1996) by Arturo Ripstein and said, “Well, that’s the idea.” Of course, I knew the Honeymoon Killers (1969) movie by Leonard Kastle and stuff like that. That’s a great idea, to take the original plot and settle in your own environment. Arturo Ripstein is Mexican, he puts the story in his Mexico, native Mexico. I said do the same thing in Belgium and you have something for Yolande. I start to write – of course, I stopped watching those movies and tried to make my own research. We start to write with Vincent Tavier, my co-writer. Finally, Yolande passed because the movie was too violent and sexual for her and at that time she said, “No, I can’t do that.” I go to another movie, Colt 45, and I’ve been through a real nightmare, I almost kill myself on that movie.
After that terrible experience, I decided to go back to Alléluia, but I needed to build another cast. I had money from the Belgian government, from France, from Canal+ and sometimes now in Europe, you have a lot of constraints. The Belgians want a Belgian actor. I always wanted to have Laurent Lucas in the part and finally I was looking for an actress. All my producers say go to see a well-known French actress, it’s going to be easier on a commercial aspect. I say, “Well, it’s not commercial at all… Let me choose the actress I want.” Especially in France, you know, the actresses are sometimes, sometimes a little bit bourgeois and not always committed I intend to have a committed actress. Finally, a friend, who’s a coach in Paris, mentioned Lola Dueñas and said, “You have to see Yo, también (2009).” A small Spanish movie. I saw it and thought it was great and I met her, because she was living in Paris and I was living in Paris at that time. We meet each other and immediately I knew she was going to be great. After it was difficult to convince my producers, but finally I succeeded and now everybody’s happy.
It’s a long story for your response, but I try to be very precise on various aspects, so I hope you don’t mind. In fact, I don’t really care about the origin of the story. Of course, it’s a good starting point for me to dig something special: mad love, amour fou. Something very visceral with that dichotomy of something transcendant that appeals to god, to love, to… something we aspire – everybody aspires to that. That dichotomy of imminence of our instincts and needs and urge. That dichotomy appeals to me a lot, more than the original story that of course it’s based on, but I was refusing to make a remake. It’s just a free adaptation and it was tricky and very risky to do that.
Choosing Laurent again and even having the character name of Gloria occur, is that something that’s going to be a through-line in this trilogy? Is he a surrogate for the audience or for you?
I don’t know, we’ll see what happens with the third part. I try to build something – maybe it’s going to be bullshit. Maybe not, I don’t know. I think it’s going to be current, because there’s going to be another character in the third part that’s going to be called Gloria. You could watch those movies all completely apart, the trilogy is something funny because you have Laurent, you have the context, the environment, and the Gloria character – just an idea of a very mysterious woman. It’s pleasant to do.
Even with Vinyan (2008), you have a recurring motif of obsession or what one character in Calvaire (2004) calls just ‘tenacity’ – is that a theme that is important to you?
I’m not a big, big intellectual. I make something just like an artisan, you know? It’s beyond myself. My rapport of cinema and what I try to do is much more physical than intellectual. But I don’t like theory or metaphor. I don’t like to talk with actors about blah blah blah and pretend to be funny or smart. I just make the way I feel, especially on Alléluia, I’ve tried to construct, to build just like an architect – to have a global vision of everything and the arc of the character, but I was much more concerned with the emotion that the actor would deliver. I was very, very demanding of that, very close to them and pushy. I’ve prepared a lot of the movie before, but during the shoot I was very free and moving a lot. Of course, I knew quite clearly where I was supposed to go. I knew all the differences would happen with the actors and with the intensity of their interpretation of the intensity of their human madness, because it’s a serial killer movies. In fact, most of the time with serial killer movies, you have distance; they are cold, they are not like us. They just are killers. Here, you can relate to all of their desires, because they seem very familiar and close. They are looking for love, they’re lonely, they’re a little bit perverse, a little bit twisted, just like we all are. But of course we’re not killers. There is no morality, they have no perception of good and bad. They are pervers polymorphe, you know, as Freud said. So it was pleasant to do, yeah, to work with that.
Was that closeness that came out of Vinyan, which is a film where the characters seem to be more shut off from the audience?
Yeah, absolutely, because I put a lot of myself in Vinyan. I was very close to that movie, but that movie was quite badly received… and that’s probably fair, I don’t know, that’s the way it is. Well, you know, there’s something I understand now that I have a little bit of experience, I’ve made four movies and I understand that I need to be in balance with my artistic ambition or expectation and the budget. If I have two [million dollars], I don’t need to pretend to make a movie for five. I understand that. On Alléluia we were short money and I adapted myself. All my ambition I adapt to the budget. On Vinyan and Colt 45 I had great expectation, but my money to make the movies were very short. Vinyan was a little bit more experimental and I decided to be very, very far from the characters. Here, I decided to completely reverse, I decided to be very, very close, because I understood finally that that’s the only way to make movies: to relate to the character. To experiment, to live catharsis through the character for something that concerns you. It took me time to understand that, but finally I get that, yeah.
I know what you’re saying about Vinyan being more experimental, but it seems like on this film you’re experimenting more with different styles throughout the film. What was your relationship like with Manuel Dacosse, because he’s a new DP for you.
Yes, a new DP. In fact, Benoît Debie was supposed to shoot Alléluia, but he was shooting Ryan Gosling’s movie at that time [Lost River (2014)]. Normally, when he finishes Ryan’s movie, he comes back to Belgium and we start to shoot, but Wim Wenders arrived and he said he wanted to shoot a movie with Benoît as soon as possible. Benoît calls me saying, “Can you delay your shooting?” I said, “Benoît, I can’t, I can’t, because of the money, the cost and so on.” So I decide to go without him and we are still friends, of course. I had an eye on Manu for a long time. I know Hélène [Cattet] and Bruno [Forzani] quite well and I called Manu, I met him, I explained to him, but it was quite difficult for him because I was very demanding and we practically used no lights at all. We shot on 16mm with no lights, very, very grainy and a lot of smoke. So sometimes he was little bit confused, but I think he did an amazing job. I was looking for something with high contrast with big blacks, shadow – close to old film noir with some element of giallo and stuff like that. I push the films, I push the DP, I push everybody [laughs]. I take some risks and see what I have in the editing room. I build the movie like that.
In the editing, was that where you came across the four-part structure you used or was that an idea you already had?
That’s an idea I had because it’s also a road movie and I was expecting a road movie without the road, the cars and all the road movie bullshit. I was looking for a form – a theatre form – that the audience can relate to immediately. The chapter style, you know, is something you can relate to immediately with a prologue, epilogue and different chapters. Just like Lars von Trier does sometimes – most of the time. I also thought it was a women’s movie with all the different women and I thought this was a good way to build the movie.
I noticed a lot of comments about the title credits being at the end of the film, how did that decision come about?
I mention the epilogue, it has to be the response to the prologue. So when she’s washing the corpse at the beginning, I wanted to have her washing Michel at the end. It has to respond, like a mirror game. We have that idea to build something like a fantasy, a dream-like aspect, after the resolution. When she calls the father, we know their story is finished and they’re going to be arrested; we know the story about Martha Beck and Raymond Hernandez, we know that they die on the electric chair. I was looking for a poetic aspect. I don’t care about the film’s realism – of course, I want to very realistic and precise on the emotion – but I’m not very concerned about the reality in the movie. French cinema is obsessed with reality. I’m not concerned about that, I feel very close to Franju, Cocteau, Melville or André Delvaux. Those masters at the border of the realisme magique. I’m very concerned with the poetic aspect of a movie and how that aspect can be a taste, a flavour that penetrates you, sticking to your bones. I am always looking for that when I build a movie – with the sound, also why I shot on 16mm. To have the skin, the sweat and practically the smell. I was expecting to smell the blood, the sweat, the breath, because I try to be the most sensual I can in the movie. For me, cinema is something very sensual and sometimes today everything is so clean. Just like porn today, it is very boring, it’s so clean. I grew up watching as a teenager on film, it was very warm. It’s something today that’s terrible. I was looking for something warm in the movie. Of course, the madness is terrible, but at least it’s warm. That’s my interpretation or my expectation, I’m not sure it’s real.
The sound design and realism – it’s very realistic, but it’s heightened, too. It really puts you in the position of the characters when these major events are happening, but it also seems like the most dramatic use of sound in your filmography. How did you execute that?
It’s just like I was telling you about the frame and the sensuality. It’s a global spectacle, global entertainment. The sound is one part of the cinema aspect. It’s always the same: I try to create an impact on the audience, a reaction. I hate cheesy movies. I hate a movie that everybody loves. Well, not exactly. I don’t like ‘comfortable’ movies, that is the right word. I like to push the boundaries a little bit, provoke the audience a little bit. Not just for provoking, there are many ways to provoke. But so that the audience can grab something, take something from the movie home, grab a piece of the movie: a flavour, an image, a taste, an idea, an insecurity. The sound contributes to that – to penetrate that person, the viewer.
When you mentioned Franju before, I know you said it’s hard getting funding for horror films in France – or genre films in general – and I’m curious what the reaction is to these types of film there? There’s the New French Extreme horror films, but is that because they’re more realistic? What is the reaction locally to these types of films?
You can tell there is no more French Extreme today because it’s always a mess at the box office, so even Canal+ are a little reluctant to produce it; it’s complicated, nobody wants it. I think there is also a big problem with the writing of those movies, so we need to consider the writing, the dramatic aspect. Look in Spain, for example, there is lots of great horror films that reach the audience because you can connect to the characters. Modestly, that’s what I’ve tried to do with Alléluia – to be concerned with the arc of the character and how to be close to the audience. But in France today, it’s really complicated. You can see the business is very interested in comedy, produced by TV with cheesy cinema stars. It’s a little bit retrograde. There’s millions for making those movies. I think it will be ending one day, especially with the arrival of Netflix and those new media. It’s probably hard to make those [French Extreme] movies, but I think we have a big responsibility for the failure because we were a bit lazy with the writing of those movies.
Is that why your next film is American and are you worried about another Colt 45 situation?
No, no, because I went through a nightmare and I’m probably a little bit stupid, but not so stupid to go two times with the same mess. For now, I’m really cautious about the people and I think it’s very important to be well surrounded by the right people. If you’re surrounded with the right people and if they help you to develop the vision, you’re safe. I wasn’t safe with Colt 45 because the people chose me, but they hated me. So it wasn’t the right choice. I have responsibility, of course. But to be surrounded… is important.