"Starting with images and emotions"
by Anne Feuillère
- Artist-cum-set-designer-cum-actor with an already impressive back catalogue, he of the booming voice, the discreet but ambitious film-maker
He’s one of those men whose silhouette, fixed firmly in the background, displays, with each passing shot, the subject’s sturdy features. In short, a face fit for the screen and one which has become more and more familiar in recent years. He nods in agreement: "Yeah, you could say that I’m... insatiable". Artist-cum-set-designer-cum-actor with an already impressive back catalogue, he of the booming voice, the discreet but ambitious film-maker, Bouli Lanners talks about himself unhesitatingly, looking you in the eye and shooting from the hip.
In his second year at the Beaux-Arts in Liège, he is given an ultimatum: either work harder or leave. He leaves. At 20 he is already working as a set designer for RTBF (Belgian French-speaking TV channel). In 1989, he touches down on the set of the Snuls – one of Canal+ Belgium’s cult programmes – where, used to having a laugh behind the scenes, he begins to "cross the set in a pink tutu" before beginning to write, act and acquire a "reputation that grew with the programme’s popularity." He acts in one TV play after the other and gets bored. But "I watched how things were done, the synchronisation, the continuity editing... I learned how to be a director while trying to combat the boredom on television film sets!" Afterwards there are the numerous short films and lots of supporting roles in feature films. He and his friends Gérard Andrien and Stefan Liberski found the Kanne Festival in Belgium. "That’s how I started." Whenever there’s a festival, he makes a film. On a barge sailing from Kanne to Liège and on to Brussels, they edit and screen "films under 10 minutes long, directed by non-directors. Our starting point is that of raw art, which, in the cinema, can produce some very funny results, totally off the wall and occasionally very moving." Painting, just like the cinema, reacquaints him with raw art. "I didn’t go to the Academy and I didn’t do film studies. I’m self-taught, a ‘rrrrraw’ writer !"
Bouli Lanners was born "at the intersection of the three frontiers" of Belgium, Holland and Germany. His father was a customs official. He describes Belgium as being some ghostly place, "a country of transit, of people passing through, increasingly so, a warehouse for transported goods." He wanted to shoot Ultranova [+see also:
interview: Bouli Lanners
film profile] in Scope to "transcend the ugliness that can be found in those places and transform it into something very beautiful and very sad." In his village, there are no cinemas as such, "We went to the cinema when we went to my grandmother’s but it wasn’t until late on that I really discovered the cinema." His first screen emotions are provoked by the odd Wim Wenders made-for-TV film he zaps into on German TV. And above all by a "man who visited our school with a 16mm projector two or three times a year" and who, one day, taking out the wrong spool, screens, instead of yet another adventure of the Seventh Company, Tati’s Mon Oncle. "Everyone was up in arms! Except me, that is. I was wondering "What on earth is that ?" I couldn’t get over it. I spent months dreaming of nothing else." Then of doing something similar, in silence, for a long time : "I wouldn’t admit it, even to myself, but it was there, deep down, lurking. It returned at regular intervals. I recall that, one year, I was introduced to someone who had made a short f-i-l-m ! A pharaoh, a living god, in other words !"
Ultranova makes him feel that he is finally doing a job he loves. It’s the same feeling he gets from writing and painting, "both activities of lonely, lonely people" which can make you "extremely receptive." And yes, he does miss the smell of "linseed oil", which he hasn’t used for a few years now, even though he started painting when he was 14 or 15 years old. But filming gives him the chance to dabble in all of his favourite things : story-telling, acting, the set... "I love being on set!" he never tires of repeating. People, trucks, brothels, strange places you would usually bypass... He describes the film as a painting where everything develops "stroke by stroke." "During the first fortnight of the shoot, I did the editing and it was really crap. Then I relaxed. This was perhaps going to be my last film, and I didn’t want to have any regrets, or to berate myself afterwards for not having followed my own advice. » He does a re-write, inventing characters for the actors who, with each passing meeting, "move" him : "I wasn’t trying to fit the actor to the script. I thought it would be better the other way round. The character becomes stronger because it is drawn with greater accuracy." Once his fear had dissipated, "if I liked something, it was in. I don’t start with concepts, I start with images and emotions. As in painting."
In 1999, Travellinckx, his first short film, told the tale of a man who goes off to film his dying father’s favourite places. Bouli doesn’t say as much, but it’s autobiographical. Two years later, he directed Muno, a story about a racist incident in a small village, a return to childhood places, another drama of ties or, rather, the absence thereof. "This withering of human relationships scares me, I’m under the impression that our modern world is heading in that direction." Silent, comprehensive and purged, Ultranova features characters searching for love in a lunar Belgium, their feet firmly on the ground but their heads elsewhere, on the verge, already on the verge of suffering an "overdose of this dog’s life". A film from which he actually removed all aspects of social realism, retaining only the essential effect of it : "people and their fear of life, the fear of declaring one’s love." A recurrent theme in all families, including his own. Through each of its characters, Ultranova remains subtly autobiographical. And "I lived that story! Just as you see it! We’ve all been through something similar ! The female friend who’s become a person you confide in and who, one day, introduces her new boyfriend to you and you are de-s-troy-ed!" He hasn’t lacked for female company since, "they come to bed or they go to hell !" he adds, bursting out laughing. Is he nervous as the release date approaches ? No, he’s happy enough to have made it and happy, too, that Ultranova will be seen in different places. That’s what matters : "I’m all for extensive polyculture rather than intensive monoculture!" He again had a lot of plans, but maybe too many. "When the film is released, I plan to spend a couple of months being bored. One of the things you’ve got to do. That’s the real luxury, not the cash, but the time to do things, to digest them, to mull over what’s happened. I’m someone who does like to chew things over." But he ends up saying : "I like flitting about, gathering nectar. I was born in the month of May. I am a child of spring !" laughing away.
(Translated from French)