“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)
- 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 [↩]
- In Lara, Fernando (Ed.): Doce miradas sobre el cine europeo (El autor y su obra), Valladolid, Junta de Castilla y León, 2003, p. 76. [↩]
- Sojcher, Frédéric: André Delvaux, le cinéma ou l’art des rencontres, Paris, Seuil/Archimbaud, 2005, p. 199. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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): http://eprints.ucm.es/8147/1/T30498.pdf. [↩]
- Daisne, Johan: De Man die Zijn Haar Kort Liet Knippen, Brussels, Manteau, 1948. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Ciment, Michel: “Le silence du monde” in Positif No. 82, March 1967, p. 54. [↩]
- Delvaux to Boujut, Michel in Combat, 02/14/1968. [↩]
- Mosley, Ph.: Op. Cit., p. 81. [↩]
- “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. [↩]
- In “Une collaboration sans nouages” included in Julien Gracq’s En lisant en écrivant, Paris, Jose Corti, 1981. [↩]
- Delvaux in Revue belge du cinéma No.7/8, 1977. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Marty, Joseph : “Le chant des rendez-vous imaginaires” in L’Avant scène du cinéma No. 226, April 1979, p. 5. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Delvaux in Sojcher, Frédéric: Op. cit., p. 56. [↩]
- See Borgomano, Laure y Nysenholc, Adolphe: André Delvaux. Une œuvre, un film: L’Œuvre au noir, Klincksieck, Éditions Labor-Méridiens, 1988, pp. 22-31. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Yourcenar, Marguerite : L’œuvre au noir, Paris, Gallimard, 1988. There is an English translation available : The Abyss, New York, Noonday Press, 1997. [↩]
- Nysenholc, Adolphe. (2006): Op. cit., p. 114. [↩]
- Lara, F.: Op. Cit., p. 90. [↩]