Bright Lights Film Journal

A Dream That Was Not All a Dream: The Films of André Delvaux

“For him, film was not only a profession but a mean of investigating cinema as a language, an investigation in which theory and film practice went hand in hand.”

When the name of Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux, who died in 2002 at the age of 76, is mentioned, those who know him immediately think of a mixture of realism and a highly cinematic dreamlike essence that recalls magic realism. A very suitable description of some of his most acclaimed films such as The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (De man die zijn haart kort liet knippen, 1965), One Night . . . a Train (Un soir, un train, 1968), Rendezvous at Bray (Rendez-Vous à Bray, 1971), or Belle (1973). But the “dreamlike” tag alone is insufficient to evaluate his oeuvre, which includes various works for television, numerous short films, and documentaries. As Philip Mosley put it, Delvaux’s films are noted for “an aesthetic of formal rigour, of studied interiority, and of immersion in the multiple cultures of his native land.”1 For him, film was not only a profession but a mean of investigating cinema as a language, an investigation in which theory — he commonly quoted the works of semiologists such as Gérard Genette and Christian Metz — and film practice went hand in hand.

Critics like Philippe Reynaert have defined Delvaux’s films as a “rencontre des arts” (“a meeting of arts”). For him, film was a kind of a synthesis of all the arts. This idea of cinema is reminiscent of German composer Richard Wagner’s concept of “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk). In his late writings, around 1850-1851, Wagner developed the idea that opera should blend many forms including music, poetry, drama, and painting. It’s easy to find traces of this same belief in Delvaux’s works, which aim to develop a creative collaboration among many artistic fields. Of course, literature was one of his main sources of inspiration, but so too were music and painting. Long before entering the motion picture industry, Delvaux studied piano composition, and music had strongly informed many of his films, including Rendezvous at Bray (1971), Belle (1973), and Met Dieric Bouts (1975).2 This personal aim was an attempt “to bring together a musical experimentation with a cinematic experimentation (in a ‘total art’) through a brand new form of film narrative.”3

Being highly praised by a wide range of film critics and intellectuals, and having received prestigious awards — the BFI’s Film of the Year in 1966, Prix Louis Delluc, and prizes in numerous film festivals including New York, Montreal, Mannheim, and Hyéres — his career peaked during the 1960s and ’70s. Now, almost ten years after his death, just four of his films are available on DVD, and his erstwhile prestige seems to be slowly evaporating.

André Delvaux was born in 1926 in Héverlée, in the Flemish province of Brabant. Following the family tradition of music, he studied piano (counterpoint and fugue with Francis de Bourguignon) at the Conservatoire Royal in Brussels. In 1948 he obtained a BA in German philology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and subsequently began teaching at the Athénée Comunal Fernand Blum in Schaerbeek. A lifelong film lover, he had by then attended such beacons of cinephilia as the Ecran du Séminaire des Arts, the biggest and most respected cine-club in Brussels, and the Cinema Museum (later the Belgian Cinémathèque). When he met Jacques Ledoux, who occupied a similar place in Belgian cinema to that of Henri Langlois in France, Delvaux was invited to play the piano accompaniment to silent films at the Ecran. “There I saw for the first time the great classic films. And I accompanied Metropolis with the piano many times, also films by Murnau and Sjöstrom.”4 In 1954 Delvaux met Stanley Reed, who had been invited to Brussels by the Cinémathèque. Reed was in charge of an educational division of the British Film Institute. As a result of this meeting, the next year Delvaux organized a course introducing young students to film at the Athénée Fernand Blum. This resulted in a number of short films developed over the following years with the collaboration of his students: Nous étions treize (1956), Deux jours d’eté/Two Summer Days (1959, also involving students from King’s College, London), and Yves boit du lait (1960).

Between 1960 and 1966, Delvaux worked on at least five television broadcasts on different film subjects for the Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT), the Belgian public television company. These subjects included film personalities such as Federico Fellini and Jean Rouch, a traveling exhibition on film organized by Henri Langlois, an in-depth look at contemporary Polish cinema — focusing on filmmakers like Andrzej Wadja, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Andrzej Munk — and a “making of” show about Jacques Demy’s The Young Ladies of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967) dealing with the different professions within the film industry.5 It was also the BRT, in collaboration with the Ministerie van Nationale Opvoeding en Kultuur (Belgian Ministry of Flemish Culture), that offered to produce Delvaux’s film debut in 1965. By that time, Belgian cinema was reduced to short films and documentaries — those of Henri Storck, Charles Dekeukeleire, and Paul Haesaerts, the most celebrated Belgian filmmakers. Delvaux’s first feature put modern Belgian cinema on the international map.

This landmark debut, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, surprises us today as a showcase for Delvaux’s maturity as a filmmaker and his strong technical skills. This is especially striking considering that it was shot in far from ideal conditions — in less than four weeks and for the relatively low budget of 1.5 million Belgian francs.6 The film is based on the eponymous novel7 by Johan Daisne, a poet, novelist, journalist, and film critic who was considered a classic author in contemporary Flemish literature. He defined his style as a kind of magic realism. “Of course, the book’s appearance is not traditionally cinematic at all,”8 Delvaux later remarked. In fact, the novel is a long, single-paragraph stream of consciousness in which the main character, Govert Miereveld (played brilliantly by Senne Rouffaer in the film), a schizophrenic professor at a female college, explores his platonic love for Fran, one of his students. So the main challenge for the filmmaker in adapting the book to the screen was to find a cinematic narrative formula to keep the audience “inside the character” throughout the whole film. Miereveld’s point of view had to be exactly the same as the audience’s. Watching the film, it is now evident that “the biggest strength of The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short is” — according to French critic Michel Ciment — “to reconstruct in an objective form an inner experience, showing us the world in Govert’s eyes and, at the same time, showing us also his figure.”9 From that point of view, the main importance of the film is that it prefigures both the narratives and structures of Delvaux’s following works; that is to say, his taste for subjective tales based on a single point of view — not only Govert’s but also Mathias’s in One Night . . . a Train, Julien’s in Rendezvous at Bray, and Mathieu’s in Belle. Most of his films show “inner visions” that mix reality with imagination and fantasy. From that combination of elements emerge fantastic atmospheres used to reveal what is hiding behind human existence. In his own words, Delvaux always sought “the neverending mystery within things,”10 a mystery that is revealed not only by the images but also by his very personal use of sounds. The “suggestive rather than descriptive use of image and sound identifies Delvaux as the cinematic heir to Symbolism . . . alert to the possibilities of synaesthetic effects, of eerie symmetries, of intricate correspondences, rhythms and rhymes.”11 Structurally, the film follows a dialectical outline: thesis (the ideal of Virtue represented by Fran); antithesis (looking at Death in the autopsy scene); synthesis (the murder of Fran); and coda (the newsreel and the shadow of a doubt: Is she really dead?). The same tight intellectual construction marks many of his subsequent films.

That is certainly the case with One Night . . . a Train, based again on Daisne, this time on the short story “Der trein der Traagheid.” Actually, the screenplay is only loosely inspired by it, as the first half of the film is completely original. It focuses on Mathias Vreeman (Yves Montand), a Flemish intellectual and lecturer who teaches literature at the university. Its first part is a very realistic evocation of his daily life, a life characterized by a series of conflicts: with his family, colleagues, and even his fiancée Anne (Anouk Aimée). In spite of his very logical and rational approach to life, he is so insensitive to the things surrounding him that he is unable to enjoy it. On the other hand, the atmosphere of the second part is dream-like and even nightmarish. All the conflicts (familial, linguistic, emotional) reappear like a dark and distressing dream, but this dream of his is presented with an absolute appearance of reality. By the end of the story, it is too late for regrets: Mathias loses Anne, who dies in an accident on a train in which both are travelling. The whole film seems to be a metaphysical reinterpretation of the myth of Orpheus. One Night . . . a Train has a very interesting structure: the two different parts (one real, one dreamt) fit together perfectly. Delvaux uses a series of correspondences and symmetries between them (with a mirror-like effect — a mise en abyme) to unify a very fragmented tale. Variations (like, for example, in the works of Schubert and Mahler) seem to be a definitive structural element. One Night . . . a Train, with its two major French film stars, Montand and Aimée, and a Twentieth Century-Fox release deal, remains Delvaux’s most celebrated film.

For economic reasons, Delvaux needed to continue working within the French movie industry for his next work. Rendezvous at Bray is another literary adaptation; this time the source is the nouvelle Le Roi Cophetua12 by surrealistic French writer Julien Gracq. Also an essayist, critic, journalist, and playwright, Gracq was considered a cult figure in contemporary French literature by the time the film was made in 1970. Carefully paced and mysteriously atmospheric, Le Roi Copethua is inspired by vivid memories of the past — the friendship between the nameless narrator (Julien Eschenbach in the film) and Jacques Neuil in the years prior to the Great War. Gracq himself left us a colorful picture of Delvaux’s adaptation of his work, used by the filmmaker “as an invitation to the journey, like a trampoline.”13 As usual, the director’s approach to adaptation meant a selection of some of the elements in the novel (the setting and atmosphere, the three main characters, some situations and even dialogues, and its two central images: Goya’s engraving La mala noche and Burne-Jones’s painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid), combined with some new characters (especially that of Odile, played by Bulle Ogier) and situations. But the main difference between book and film is in the structure. The film, fragmented and tilting between the present and the past, is constructed through numerous flashbacks. Delvaux uses the form of the musical rondo (A, B, A, C, A, D . . .) to organize present (A) and past time (each one of the flashbacks being B, C, D . . .). He will continue to make frequent use of musical structures to construct his films but never again with such perfection as in Rendezvous at Bray. The way in which the past is nostalgically evoked by vivid memories gives the film a Proustian patina.

Delvaux’s exploration of magic realism in cinema continued with Belle and Benvenuta (1983). The first, an original screenplay by the director, tells the story of the poet Mathieu Grégoire (Jean-Luc Bideau) and his amour fou for Belle (Adriana Bogdan), a beautiful stranger created (or not?) by his imagination. In this film, it is even more difficult to separate reality and imagination than in his previous works. In fact Delvaux, who cited the French romantic poet Gérard de Nerval as one of the Belle’s major influences, tried, in his own words, to create a film “based on the alternation of reality and dream, one flowing into the other with no end.”14 For Mathieu, as for Nerval, “the dream is a second life,”15 and, as it comes to an end, it is almost impossible for him to separate the two as his dreamt life has a striking real-life effect. Joseph Marty has pointed out how in Belle, following the surrealist principle, “life and death, reality and imagination, past and future . . . stop being noticed as a contradiction.”16 Instead of the symmetrical, easily distinguishable two parts of One Night . . . a Train, here reality and dream are combined freely and alternately from one sequence to another. But, as in that earlier film, there are enough correspondences and similarities between Mathieu’s real existence (with his family and friends in Spa) and his imaginary inner life (represented by Belle and the Hautes Fagnes forests) for the audience to be able to distinguish between them.

On the other hand, Benvenuta, based on Suzanne Lilar’s La confession anonyme, was Delvaux’s last attempt at magic realism. Such significant and personal elements as “poetry, magic, erotic longing, and the omnipresence of death” which “pervade André Delvaux’s carefully crafted fiction films,”17 all reappear in this film. So Benvenuta can be easily seen as the summing-up of his “magic realism” cycle. In it, the director’s own metaphysical and spiritual aspirations (drawing on influences from the Flemish mystics Hadewych and Ruusbroec to magic realism’s own neo-platonist tradition) are sublimated. That’s why Jean-Noël Vuarnet has defined the film as a sort of “mysticism of love.”18 But dealing, like many of Delvaux’s films, with sexual desire, the mystical elements differ from those in his previous works. A quote from Livio (Vittorio Gassman), one of the film’s main characters, gives us the key to the essence of this particular brand of mysticism: “In the sexual act, I never look for anything but the soul.” This is what all Delvaux’s films express. However, by the late 70’s, he felt that the possibilities in magic realism were running out. He admitted: “I should turn to something else.”19. And so he did.

In the years between 1975 and 1985, Delvaux shot three full-length films and a medium-length one. Those were the years of what critics dubbed his films de recherche (“research films”)20, three unconventional nonfiction films including With Dieric Bouts (Met Dieric Bouts, 1975), To Woody Allen, from Europe with Love (1980), and Babel Opéra (Babel Opéra ou la répetition de Don Juan, 1985). The first one is a medium-length film produced to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Flemish painter Dieric Bouts in 1475. Delvaux and Ivo Michiels, his co-screenwriter and one of his closest collaborators, had two aims here: first, to equate their artistic capacities with those of Bouts, and second, to track their common Flemish experiences. A very personal, even autobiographical film, With Dieric Bouts is most importantly proof of the filmmaker’s love for the culture and landscapes of his country. To Woody Allen, from Europe with Love is not only a portrait of the New York director during the shooting of Stardust Memories (1980), but also, and above all, a film about the craft of filmmaking. Finally, Babel Opéra, Delvaux’s least-known film, is probably also his most unconventional and thus his most difficult to classify. Taking the form of a musical comedy, it combines rehearsals of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels (real rehearsals, as they actually happened) with a fictional story about a film director (Françoise Beukelaers) planning to shoot a film version of the opera. Once more, reality and fiction go hand in hand in a film that unites theatre, music, and a deep reflection on mise en scène. All three of these “research films” show Delvaux’s desire to experiment with film genres and aesthetics and to take his own filmmaking a step further.

Woman Between Wolf and Dog (Een Vrouw Tussen Hond en Wolf, 1979) and The Abyss (L’oeuvre au noir, 1988) are among Delvaux’s last fiction films. The first deals with a subject still taboo in Belgium in the ’70s, when the film was made: collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation. In France, this had already been the subject of the controversial Marcel Ophüls documentary Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974). But if one film most influenced Delvaux in his decision to make Woman Between Wolf and Dog, it was Resnais and Duras’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). In fact, the female lead characters in both films are essentially different visions of the same woman. Woman Between . . . is a very realistic melodrama, not so different from what was known in classical Hollywood as “women’s pictures,” set in WWII. As in Delvaux’s old and long-cherished project Karl et Anna,21 Lieve is a woman in between two men. She hesitates between her Nazi collaborator husband Adriaan (Rutger Hauer) and her lover François (Roger Van Hool), a Resistence member. The filmmaker and Ivo Michiels make use of the story, a common love triangle, to present a thorough and detailed depiction of a period marked by feelings of shame and guilt. One of the film’s high points is the fine psychological portrait of Lieve, as played by Marie-Christine Barrault.

Watching The Abyss for the first time, we immediately feel as if we were seeing a sort of posthumous film. As in the cases of Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (Offret, 1986) or Huston’s The Dead (1987), for example, it feels like a filmic testament, a kind of final lesson on cinema as Delvaux understood it. Although adapted from Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel L’œuvre au noir22, it is easy to see Zénon (Gian-Maria Volonté) as an extension of the filmmaker himself. Adolphe Nysenholc23 has used the expression “intimate film” to describe The Abyss, a tag that can be also used to describe his whole oeuvre. But of all Delvaux’s films, it is in fact the one that deals most literally with the spiritual aims of his creator. The protagonist is Zénon, a doctor and an alchemist in 16th-century Flanders. Against the orthodox philosophical and religious dogmas of the era, he pursues a wider range of knowledge that leads him to a spiritual purification: what alchemists call unio contrarium. While The Abyss has the elements of a huge historical epic, it centres on the interior life of Zénon — his beliefs, wishes, contradictions, and remembrances. In the same stoical way that Zénon accepts his death, Delvaux then accepted the end of his career in films. “Very nostalgic,”(24) he left some long-cherished projects unfilmed and retired to a quiet life, attending tributes, retrospectives, and master classes. He passed away quietly, as he had lived, of a heart failure in one of those classes.


1965 De Man Die Zijn Haar Kort Liet Knippen (The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short)

1968 Un soir, un train (One Night . . . A Train)

1971 Rendez-vous à Bray (Rendezvous at Bray)

1973 Belle (Belle)

1975 Met Dieric Bouts (with Dieric Bouts)

1979 Een Vrouw tussen hond en wolf (Woman Between Wolf and Dog)

1980 To Woody Allen, from Europe with Love

1983 Benvenuta (Benvenuta)

1985 Babel Opéra ou la répetition de Don Juan

1988 L’œuvre au noir (The Abyss)

  1. Mosley, Philip: “The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short,” in Ernst Mathijs (Ed.): The Cinema of the Low Countries, London, Wallflower, 2004, pp. 77-85. (12) Most notably in With Dieric Bouts (1975), in which the structure is inspired by the musical compositions of Dufay and Machault. For the influence of music in the films by Delvaux, see Nysenholc, Adolphe: André Delvaux ou le réalisme magique, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 2006, pp. 129-155 []
  2. In Lara, Fernando (Ed.): Doce miradas sobre el cine europeo (El autor y su obra), Valladolid, Junta de Castilla y León, 2003, p. 76. []
  3. Sojcher, Frédéric: André Delvaux, le cinéma ou l’art des rencontres, Paris, Seuil/Archimbaud, 2005, p. 199. []
  4. Fellini (1960, 4 episodes); Jean Rouch (1962, 5); Cinéma, bonjour (1958); Le cinéma polonais (1964, 9); and Derriere l’écran (1966, 6). All of them were produced by the BRT. []
  5. For these and other production details, check out my PhD dissertation El realismo mágico en la obra cinematográfica de André Delvaux (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2008): []
  6. Daisne, Johan: De Man die Zijn Haar Kort Liet Knippen, Brussels, Manteau, 1948. []
  7. Delvaux in Aprà, Adriano; Comolli, Jean-Louis and Narboni, Jean: “Entretien avec André Delvaux” in Cahiers du cinéma No. 180, July 1966, pp. 62-66. []
  8. Ciment, Michel: “Le silence du monde” in Positif No. 82, March 1967, p. 54. []
  9. Delvaux to Boujut, Michel in Combat, 02/14/1968. []
  10. Mosley, Ph.: Op. Cit., p. 81. []
  11. “Le Roi Cophetua” is included in Julien Gracq’s La Presqu’île, Paris, Jose Corti, 1970. An English translation of the nouvelle is available: King Copethua, New York, Turtle Point Press, 2003. []
  12. In “Une collaboration sans nouages” included in Julien Gracq’s En lisant en écrivant, Paris, Jose Corti, 1981. []
  13. Delvaux in Revue belge du cinéma No.7/8, 1977. []
  14. Nerval, Gérard de : Aurelia suive de Léttres à Jenny Colon, La Pandora et Les chimeres, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 1972. English translation : Aurelia and Other Writtings, Boston, Exact Change, 1996. []
  15. Marty, Joseph : “Le chant des rendez-vous imaginaires” in L’Avant scène du cinéma No. 226, April 1979, p. 5. []
  16. Colvile, Georgiana M. M.: “Between Surrealism and Magic Realism: The Early Feature Films of André Delvaux” in Katharine Conley and Pierre Taminiaux (Eds.): Yale French Studies No. 109 (Surrealism and Its Others), New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 115. []
  17. Vuarnet, Jean-Noël : “La femme aux deux visages” in Nysenholc, Adolphe (Ed.): André Delvaux, Brussels, Revue de l’Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1994, pp. 229-234. []
  18. Delvaux in Sojcher, Frédéric: Op. cit., p. 56. []
  19. See Borgomano, Laure y Nysenholc, Adolphe: André Delvaux. Une œuvre, un film: L’Œuvre au noir, Klincksieck, Éditions Labor-Méridiens, 1988, pp. 22-31. []
  20. Delvaux worked in 1970 on an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Leonhard Frank. The novel has been filmed several times by such filmmakers as Joe May and Mervyn LeRoy. It was supposed to be a German-French-Belgian coproduction, but it was finally cancelled as an American major production company was developing a very similar project at the same time. The book is a realistic, if sentimental, account of a soldier who seduces his comrade’s wife. []
  21. Yourcenar, Marguerite : L’œuvre au noir, Paris, Gallimard, 1988. There is an English translation available : The Abyss, New York, Noonday Press, 1997. []
  22. Nysenholc, Adolphe. (2006): Op. cit., p. 114. []
  23. Lara, F.: Op. Cit., p. 90. []