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A Portrait of Harry Cleven


- Ex-aspiring painter, ex-shy actor, the director Harry Cleven, attracted to confusing situations, is above all a perfectionist unpretentious artist who talks with willingness and sincerity

A Portrait of Harry Cleven

Cleven admits to have been moved as a child by Bambi, keen on the humour in Laurel and Hardy films as a teenager, but early in his life his attention was caught by darker spheres : ‘As an adolescent, I thought the most artistic thing in the world was to film spurts of vampire blood in slow motion, like in The fiancee of the Vampire.’ Despite his interest for genre cinema, he considers the fine arts, and starts applying to an art school in Lieges, but destiny shows him another way : ‘I called the Ministry of Education to know what studies did not require the A-level. They mentioned the Conservatory in Lieges in music and drama. I chose drama.’ It was a unexpected choice since he had never considered it. ‘I was shy. I was never comfortable onstage.’

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His drama years had a bitter-sweet taste. ‘The play which left me the strongest memory was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where I played Estragon. It was a fascinating experience but it felt like a betrayal from the first rehearsals up to the performance. I was very disappointed by this way of doing theatre. As if a painter painted a canvas red, was acclaimed, and started wondering what to do : put more red to please the public ? Put less red but keep his integrity ? I find it very difficult to play before an audience.’ Is it different to play before a camera ? ‘The camera is very different. The way you relate to your work is free from the tension of meeting the public. And if you make mistakes, they can be serendipitous.’ As an actor, Cleven worked with quite a few masters : his friend Jaco Van Dormael, André Delvaux (L'œuvre au noir), Jean-Luc Godard (Helas pour moi and Forever Mozart)… These directors’ very distinctive styles could have influenced him. It did not : ‘What I learnt from them was mainly that you have to be yourself.’

In 1990, his will to be behind the camera becomes reality ; he makes Sirènes, starring Philippe Volter, an actor he hires again two years later for Abracadabra, his first feature film. ‘It felt more natural to hold the camera. I was anxious on the first day of Sirènes. I was not sure I was going to make it because I had not been to a cinema school. The next day, I came on the set feeling pregnant ! I thought, this is where I belong.’

Abracadabra, the story of a man in jail, was inspired by what he heard from the prisoners during three years when he gave drama classes at the prison in Namur. He taught but also learnt : ‘When you direct people who live in prison, everything is important, especially body language. If I put my hand of someone’s shoulder while telling him ‘The way you do that is wrong, we should do it again,’ my showing friendship and trust changes the way he perceives my comment. If I did not do it, a man could resent it and not tell me. In prison, people don’t cheat, they can’t be bothered, they have nothing to expect from playing a role. Everything is raw and spontaneous. This taught me how to speak to and direct the actors.’

In 1999, when he shot his second feature film, Pourquoi se marier le jour de la fin du monde, ‘the first three weeks, he says, things did not go very well with Pascal Grégory. We almost agreed to call it quits.’ But when Cleven showed Jaco Van Dormael the rushes and followed his advice to shot continuously without stopping the camera, ‘Something sparked. From then on, everything went well. I love Pascal Grégory in my film. He is fantastic. Working with a star was something new for me. In Belgium, actors stays actors, even when they are well-known. An actor is someone open, a ‘star’ isn’t. In France, they have to fight so hard they end up ready to sell themselves, but if they regain control, then they treat others the way they were treated themselves, like some kind of unconscious revenge. It is not a rebellion, they were brought to that. It is quite disturbing.’

Biographical notes

19th August 1956: birth in Malmédy. From 1975 to 1970: studies drama at the Conservatory in Liege. From 1979 to 1983: stage comedian; from 1983 on: cinema and television actor; organises classes and workshops about 'the actor before the camera', especially at the prison in Namur in 1989 and 1991. 1990: directs Sirènes, his first short film, followed by a full-length feature, Abracadabra, in 1992. 1999: TV film Les enfants du jour and second feature film, Pourquoi se marier le jour de la fin du monde ?.

(Translated from French)

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