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Interview: Felix van Groeningen • Director

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“An orchestrated chaos”


- Interview with the young Flemish director in Paris in the offices of his French distributor MK2

Interview: Felix van Groeningen • Director

Cineuropa: After two debut features made from original screenplays, you wanted to try your hand at an adaptation.
Felix Van Groeningen: When I started making films, I couldn’t imagine one day working on someone else’s screenplay or adapting a book. I wrote my debut feature single-handedly, but I found it difficult and I wanted to co-write the screenplay for my second feature. Making an adaptation was just one small step further. Writing a screenplay takes far too much time and I was looking for a way of being able to get on more quickly with the filming.

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Why did you choose Dimitri Verhulst’s book?
I knew the author and really liked his style. When I read The Misfortunates [+see also:
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interview: Felix van Groeningen
film profile
, I initially thought it was impossible to adapt, as it was too anecdotal, made up of a series of drinking binges. But the final chapters shed light on the whole book: we understand that the main character is no longer in his village, that his father is dead and that he is about to become a father himself, even though this is not at all what he wants.

I cried when he goes to his grandmother’s house and thanks her: we had to achieve this effect in the film. I wanted people to understand why the character has become so cynical. I took a lot of time to define the film’s structure. I like playing with time, with a long story included in a short story, making back-and-forth shifts that are not very logical, but rather emotional.

A family story, social realism or tragicomedy: what was your preferred angle of approach?
It comes together as a whole. I tried to imbue the characters with humanity. It’s the story of someone who escapes his social background, but this doesn’t save him: he’s lonely and sad, he hates the world and his life. It’s very dark, but everything opens up again because he finds his place in life and there, he returns to his past and sees his family again. It’s a long, 20-year journey with a very upbeat side, but lots of destruction too.

You made the actors rehearse a lot before the shoot.
That’s my method. While I write the screenplay, I begin the casting process and very soon I start rehearsals to see what the actors can bring to the characters. I also watched some documentaries with the actors, in particular Les Aventures de la Famille Debecker (“The Adventures of the Debecker Family”), which centres on a poor family who live in a tiny house with a very warm atmosphere.

What were your visual ideas for the film?
I wanted an orchestrated chaos, with lots of energy. But you have to be careful not to go too fast, otherwise viewers can’t follow any more. Energy is essential, but you also have to know precisely what shots you want. My DoP takes part in rehearsals, films them and suggests ideas for directing. Then we look at the images and take photos from the video to put together our shooting script.

What are your main cinematic influences?
I always have one or two films that stay with me for a few years and I watch them between ten and 20 times. Recently, it’s been Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped [+see also:
film profile
and Alfonso Cuarón’s And Your Mother Too.

A screening in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, a successful run in Belgian theatres and selection as Belgian hopeful for the 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. How do you feel about this success?
It’s wonderful! My second feature was well received by the press, but in theatres obtained no more than averagely good results for a Flemish arthouse film. But I am especially glad that success only came with this film because I’ve realised from past experience that I simply need to continue making films and not start dreaming.


international title: The Misfortunates
original title: De helaasheid der dingen
country: Belgium, Netherlands
sales agent: MK2 Films
year: 2009
directed by: Felix van Groeningen
screenplay: Felix van Groeningen
cast: Kenneth Vanbaeden, Valentijn Dhaenens, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh, Bert Haelvoet, Gilda De Bal, Natali Broods, Pauline Grossen, Sofie Palmers

main awards/selection

Cannes 2009 Director's Fortnight

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