Interview first published by Film4
Belgian writer/director Fabrice du Welz is associated with horror, but rarely follows the genre rules. His debut Calvaire (2004) is a darkly comic Christmas cracker about a young chanteur trapped in a strange all-male community in the Belgian backwoods, and his most recent film Alleluia (2014) relocates the true story of America’s 1940s ‘lonely hearts killers’ Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez to the Ardennes of the present day. Meanwhile his Vinyan (2007) is an intense, hyperaestheticised story of mourning, maternity and madness set in the heart of darkness between post-tsunami Thailand and Burma. Amid all these explorations of peculiar psychological terrains, he has also directed a taut police thriller, Colt 45 (2014).
Shortly before airings of Calvaire and Vinyan on Film4, and the UK première of Alleluia at the Film4 FrightFest, Anton Bitel chatted with du Welz about his films, about love (and more particularly his love for The Texas Chan Saw Massacre), and about feet.
Film4: In the UK, Calvaire tended to get lumped in the torture porn category, but to me that seems a very unfair and insensitive reading of your film. How do you see Calvaire? Is it a comedy? A tragedy? A horror film? A parable?
Fabrice du Welz: That’s a tough question. I really don’t know, honestly. It’s just a personal movie. I think you have to understand that Calvaire is the first part of a small trilogy that I’d like to do in South Belgium, in the Ardennes, and Alleluia is the second part. There will be a third part – soon, I hope – with the same actor, Laurent Lucas, in the same context, the same environment.
So all three films will have the same location, the same lead actor – but what else do they have in common?
Mad love. I think all my personal movies take the same question of love, because it’s a great opportunity to dig [into] and develop some psychology and some behaviours, some piece of life that seems to me very, very interesting. If people see Calvaire as a torture porn, I’m very sad about that, I don’t think it’s fair. I hope that one day they will understand that it’s not. You know it’s always the same: I’m always between two genres and people need to have labels on everything, especially today, so Calvaire is a horror movie, it’s a movie made ten years ago with all the torture porn wave, and they put Calvaire in that same box, so that’s probably why. You know, I grew up watching horror movies and psychological horror movies in the 1980s, and in the 1980s the horror genre was very elevated, with adult movies. I can only regret that today Hollywood makes some childish horror movies. I tried to dig [into] some adult stuff, but maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. It’s just the way I’d like to work, it’s just my stuff.
You mentioned 80s horror, but Calvaire comes with a real 70s sensibility. I can see elements from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (hysterical dinner party, redneck insanity), Deliverance (pigs and buggery) and Straw Dogs (siege & savagery) in your film. What drew you to this 70s horror vibe, and what were your other influences in making the film?
My favourite movie is probably The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, because that movie was for me a big shock. I discovered that movie practically by chance, it was very unexpected for me, because at that time I was in a Catholic school, I get back for the weekends at my parents’ house, my mother only watches horror movies, and I discover many, many horror movies. One day the guy from the video shop tells me, “You have to watch that.” I was very young, I don’t know exactly how old. For me, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is truly a piece of art. It blows my mind, it starts my imagination, and from that moment I discover so many painters, I discover Buñuel, Hitchcock – it was just like an easy route to a lot of things I discover later. So I always come back to that movie because that movie has a sense of [the] surreal, has a sense of poetry, has a sense of horror, has a sense of [the] comic, absolutely – it has a sense of everything! It works so much on both levels: on a very arty level, and on a commercial level.
And certainly all those aspects can be found in Calvaire as well – but was there anything about the 1970s as a decade that was drawing you, or was it just coincidence that most of your reference points in Calvaire seem to be from that decade?
Calvaire was a long time ago. I think, I hope I’ve grown up a little bit since then. Calvaire was my first movie, it took five years to make it. Things were very difficult, because making a horror movie, especially in Belgium, at the time was practically impossible. Nobody wants to follow me, you know, in France they don’t like horror movies, they don’t understand horror movies, and that’s very strange because French horror cinema was great a long time ago, but now, when you want to direct a horror movie, it’s very edgy, people say, “What the fuck? Why don’t you make something, you know, important, elevated – or commercial?” I’m still a great cinephile, I watch many, many, many films. I grew up watching the horror movies, especially from the 70s and the 80s, because I grew up watching VHS, and in that time I used to watch a lot, and always think that I want to make movies, and I want to start making a horror movie – and Calvaire came up like that.
You shot Vinyan in Thailand. Was this a good experience?
The shooting was intense, that’s probably the greatest adventure in my life. We have not so much money to make that movie, and at that time I have a great ambition to make something very unique and peculiar, and I make some choices. The movie was a little bit – not badly received, but the reception was not quite what I supposed and expected it would be, and I was very, very sorry about that, and it makes me very sad for a long time.
Did you feel that it was misunderstood?
No. If I can’t make myself clear to the audience, that means I’m wrong, I’m wrong somewhere, so I need to work, and I need to deliver something that everybody can relate to at one point. You know what, it’s probably too experimental, in a way. I’ve tried to – I was refusing pity for my characters, especially at the beginning, I was very interested in metaphors, maybe it was a little bit too intellectual. In a way it’s very physical, and I liked so much working with the actors Rufus [Sewell] and Émmanuelle [Béart], and it was a great experience to go through. And I think that film is quite unique, it’s quite peculiar, it’s quite strange. I think it’s a very different movie from Calvaire because there’s practically no sense of humour in Vinyan, and in Calvaire there is a lot of what I think is dark humour, and it is quite a funny movie, just like Alleluia. But with Vinyan, I think maybe my eyes were bigger than my stomach, and I didn’t have the money to go through that. Vinyan was quite a journey. But you know, it’s done now – what can I say?
You said it has a very mixed reception. Did that affect your future filmmaking options and decisions?
Yeah, it affected me a lot. It took me a long time to understand that I need probably to be a little bit less – how I can say that? – autistic with my characters. I need to give more to the audience, so I tried to put myself in a more commercial production. It was called Colt 45 – and it was a disaster because it was a very bad production. They wanted me to deliver a strict commercial movie, and I’d like to do that, but I suppose I’m not the right guy for that job.
And when I started Alleluia, I thought, ok, I will do something very personal that should be for this time, because I have a little bit of experience, and I know how narrative aspect and storyline and characters are very, very important. I have to deliver something, I have to give the audience something to catch, to grab, and it was so risky, because it was a kind of adaptation of a very, very famous fait divers [i.e. a sensational news story]. There are many movies about that, Arturo Ripstein’s movie [Deep Crimson, 1996]. And I put all my strength and all my soul into the characters. The characters are the most important things in the movie, and not the visuals. In Vinyan I was very obsessed with the visuals, and it’s a very visual movie, but sometimes it fails with emotions, and I said with Alleluia go for the character, give everything to the character. Even if it’s small and a not very strictly commercial movie, at least people can relate to those characters. Even if they are perverse, completely fucked-up, or funny, or grotesque, at least people can relate and want to follow the characters.
Did you watch, or avoid, all the other Honeymoon Killer adaptations in preparation for your film?
No no, in preparation I of course avoided those movies, but I know those movies quite well – also the movie with John Travolta, the Todd Robinson [Lonely Hearts, 2006]. I love so much the original fait divers, the Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez story, I think it’s a great, great story about mad love, about amour fou. I think that story was an opportunity for me to try to deliver something very different, and very close to my first movie, because Calvaire was the movie where in fact I felt the most free, and three movies later, with Alleluia, I tried to deliver something – different of course, better I hope – but with the experience of the movies I’ve made and I’ve been through.
You also seem preoccupied with the difference between cinema’s idealised love stories and your characters’ more mundane, murderous reality. Do you regard the romanticism of cinema as a kind of psychopathy?
Well, yes, I suppose. There is the idea of love, and I suppose we go through that stuff, all people go through that, the idea of love, and then, when love gets real, it could be bloody, well not bloody, it could be psychotic, sometimes it could be a war. Joseph Losey’s The Servant, there’s a good example of what it could be. It is a nest of fascism, the couple is the nest of fascism: there is always one who wants to impose his vision on the other. It could be a big struggle, it could be a big fight, it could be a great alienation. You can see that in Simenon’s work, you can see that in every aspect of literature, of poetry, of cinema, or even painting. Real love can be very, very scary, and fascinating also, because it’s really one thing we need to go through. It’s always something that inspires me so much.
Alleluia is also a film about, and possibly for, foot fetishists. What’s that all about? Where did you come up with the idea of focusing so much on feet and toes and shoes?
Well, it’s funny. I like shoes, I like feet myself, especially women’s feet and shoes, and I feel it’s probably one of the most beautiful things in the world. It doesn’t mean I’m a complete fetishist. I think it’s a very, very funny obsession. Hitchcock is such a shoe fetishist, and Tarantino is such a foot fetishist – but you can see in different movies, it’s very common in directors, you know, there are many, many shoe fetishists.