Olivier Smolders • Director
by J-M Vlaeminckx Cinergie.be/ Anne Feuillère
- "A film that would tell a tale through the shards of a broken mirror or, a story that could be viewed through the distorting glass of a kaleidoscope"
Nuit Noire [+see also:
interview: Olivier Smolders
film profile] advances by approximation, unwinding a guiding thread between fragments scattered around like polaroid snaps, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that gradually slot into place. And yet, in a film which is like a synecdoche, the first image is all-revealing.
Olivier Smolders : Yes, it’s true, the film can be seen as a mosaic. Having said that, at the start, the dream sequences and then the introduction of the main character form a tangible guiding thread: Oscar is haunted by the memory of a sister who died when they were kids. Then, all of a sudden, the story clouds the issue by moving certain elements around, by opening parallel paths and other more random and mysterious elements, created, as if by contamination, from elements peripheral to the main plot. Very early on, the audience is invited to suspend belief while following the story, which rarely separates fact from fiction. I wanted to make a film that would tell a tale through the shards of a broken mirror or, to put it another way, a story that could be viewed through the distorting glass of a kaleidoscope. You can spot the big pieces – the main themes – which give the story its shape, providing an overview in a way that’s almost exaggeratedly explicit, but you’re also distracted by the reverberations that put the secondary elements into perspective.
Nuit Noire would seem to be a microcosm of all your obsessions and the visual motifs in your short films.
That’s not quite how I saw it but, admittedly, most of my favourite motifs are there. Sometimes I have the impression that I’m making films with a limited number of objects, a little like a child who keeps all his favourite toys hidden away in a cupboard. In this case, it's all about my personal cupboard ! Being in a position to be able to film only what I want to, I film insects and looks and expressions rather than car chases ! Those familiar with my films won’t be thrown by the subject matter of Nuit Noire. The great difference here lies perhaps in the way in which the tale unwinds, since this will vary depending on the length of the film. I wanted to tell a story formulated in unfamiliar fashion, respectful more of the formal rules governing baroque aesthetics and 16th century mannerism than those used in classic story-telling : an elegant albeit convoluted story, often referential, displaying its own formal "style" and calligraphies at the occasional expense of the plot or relationship between the characters. I could quite easily imagine audiences’ unease at this kind of approach. But what amazed me about audience reaction, and I’m including those who’ve seen my short films, is that while half of them tell me : "I didn’t get it,...at all !" the other half go to the other extreme : "Crystal clear: but you didn’t leave much to the imagination !" Result: I’m now walking around in a slight daze going : "Where am I?" (laughter).
Nuit noire, although quite a complex film, does have a number of funny asides, in particular the reference to the (comic book) Adventures of Alix, La Griffe Noire (The Black Claw)...
The way in which the story is told and the dreamlike quality of the film enable the audience – at least, one trusts it does – to use their imagination and their own memories of the past to interpret given elements. The contamination game within the story is one that each member of the audience can join in with. And I’m delighted to see you got the allusion to Alix’s La Griffe Noire... since I did not! Since my story unfolds against a colonial backdrop, I associated the claw weapon with the leopard men in Tintin in the Congo. On the subject of the personal appropriation of films, one of the first people to see the film said to me "It’s the story of a serial killer, a guy who kills all the women he meets". I looked high and low for clues as to how he had come to that particular conclusion. It seemed such a weird thing to say, but at the same time, the film does lend itself to that kind of interpretation. The blurred way in which the film is told anticipates, at any rate, a symmetrical blur in its moral. I quite like the idea of a film you can't get to grips with!
The film does have its funny side, which materialises at regular intervals. It gets the pulses racing then calms things down with a dash of humour. We never quite know whether we’re coming or going.
It's an appealing artistic project : putting both writer and audience through the wringer ! In the case of Nuit Noire it would be possible to gradually reduce the ambiguities, even to review the story from scratch insofar as there are very few arbitrary elements but that would be a largely superficial exercise. It’s the particular form that generates a comparison different to the meaning. Deprived of its shape, the meaning standardises. It’s as if you wanted to render a prosaic translation of a poem. That said, my wife – who belongs to that half of the audience claiming to have "understood zilch about this movie" – asked me to talk her through it. As she suffers from insomnia, I told her I’d explain part of the film to her each night, shot by shot, starting at the beginning. The first night she held out for seven minutes before falling into a deep sleep. The second night she lasted five minutes and twelve seconds. On the third night, I just had to remind her of "the story so far" for her to drop off immediately. Nuit Noire could be the new Night Nurse !
Many Europeans will see themselves in one particular aspect of the film, the old colonial links, between Africa and the home country. There’s even a more personal link here in that you yourself were born in Africa...
It’s part of my family history, as it is for many Belgians’. Lots of other European nations that once had colonies now have to cope with the love-hate relationship they have with their past. It’s an important part of Belgian history, one which, even today, and in spite of historians’ efforts, stems from a kind of fantasy-ridden delirium sometimes actually quite far removed from the real Belgian Congo. Nuit Noire is based on this largely imaginary version of Africa.
Nuit Noire reminded me a great deal of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf another film with a "contamination" flavour about it. In particular, Hour of the Wolf tells the story of a character who is also plagued by his own fantasies, which seems to me to sum up your film, too.
When you start on the making of a film, there are always certain other films at the back of your mind. At the start – a very long time ago ! – I quite wanted to make an Eraserhead-type movie. Somewhere along the line, I changed tack and my beacon became Hour of the Wolf, one of my favourite Bergman movies, and the one, in fact, that prompted me to shoot Nuit Noire in black and white. The black and white photography in Bergman’s film is fantastic. I also started off by really liking the idea of a character who meets his own ghosts but in such a way that neither he nor the audience can quite fathom whether they are genuine ghosts or real people who live in the castle on that island. And without the end of the film making sense of the ambiguity. Apart from Bergman (to whom I would not compare myself) having a more formal side and being more talented, the main difference between the two films is that Bergman’s is based on a couple and on the question which the manic artist’s wife asks herself : "Must I follow him in his madness or do I rescue him from it ?" The character I created is desperately alone. Elsewhere, not only are the aesthetics of Nuit Noire at quite a distant remove from the aesthetics of most of Bergman’s films, they are also nowhere near your typical Bergman universe : a dramatic vision of life, which revolves around the concept of sin. But if Nuit Noire revolves around fear and guilt, I don’t see it as a dramatic film, but rather as something playful, alive, almost like an impulse, a fluttering of light on fragments of coloured glass that remain hidden in the night. But it’s true that I always want my films to make people laugh, although, at the end of the day, I don’t often see the audience in stitches (laughter).
If we could speak about games and references for a moment, the film reminded me of the Alain Resnais film, Je t’aime, je t’aime, which is extremely "art-house" and also a film of approximation.
Yes... But, to be honest, I never really know what to make of Alain Resnais. From a purely entertainment point of view, I preferred Last Year in Marienbad and Hiroshima, mon amour to Je t’aime, je t’aime. And what I liked in those films was the fertile collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, and between Resnais and Duras respectively. If Nuit Noire puts you in mind of Resnais, it’s because of the special nature of the narration. However, most of Resnais’s films remain decidedly classic, never not making sense! Providence, for example, and My American Uncle. Lynch and Ruiz are more to my liking when it comes to off-the-well movies.
By shooting Nuit Noire digitally, didn’t issues like sharpness and grain have to be handled differently than when working with film ?
A noisy video image terrifies me as much as a grainy film image immediately delights me. It’s very subjective. Beautifully grainy film images remind me of old movies, and the pleasure is instantaneous. Video noise reminds me of a VHS cassette that’s been lying on my desk gathering dust for 4 years ! With regard to Nuit Noire, we tried to go that extra mile to achieve the sharpest images possible as the HD tool that we were using had been developed to that end. I also wanted to keep Super 8 shots with perceptible film grain, to recount the character’s childhood, which was also, in a certain way, the cinema’s childhood. If, for various reasons, going digital helped the film, it also lent the images a slightly cold glaze, an aesthetic finishing, which is perhaps too great a reflection of the film itself.
You played around with the colour to compensate for this coldness.
Yes. Digital calibration is quite unlike anything else in this world. You can reapply the colorimetry simultaneously to the whole film, to individual shots and even to details within images. I felt just like a painter in front of his canvas. Nuit Noire is, to me, a kind of painting with characters whose faces emerge slowly from the shadows. A nested painting, too, or one based on a series of slightly byzantine icons. Painted images from an initiatory rite or secret. The formal, technical homogeneity, the « manner » hint at a common origin, but at the same time, there may be elements that are copies or fakes. The idea of a film made of paintings, each with its own tale to tell, is very stimulating.
The DVD’s coming out soon and includes all your earlier short films. Are you going to make any more shorts ? What are your plans ?
Mort à Vignole was all about the passing of time and death that haunted family images. I’d like to present its counterpoint, this time on the subject of space and travel images. In which place, real or imaginary, are we truly ourselves or, put another way, which of our journeys, irrespective of how long ago, have made us the people we are today? Is it better to move around or to stay put? If you travel the world, what do you do with the pictures ? From my point of view, it would be better to stay at home! The working title derives from an essay by Xavier de Maîstre : « Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage around my Roo)" . But all that is only paper talk for the moment. I have yet to...walk the talk !
This interview can be seen at : www.cinergie.be
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