Koen Mortier • Director
“Angel is about love and death, hope and despair”
- TORONTO 2018: We chatted to Flemish filmmaker Koen Mortier, who returns to Toronto with his third feature, Angel, starring Vincent Rottiers and Fatou N'Diaye
Flemish filmmaker Koen Mortier returns to the Toronto International Film Festival with his third feature, Angel [+see also:
interview: Koen Mortier
film profile], portraying a love story between a Belgian cyclist and an African prostitute. The film is based on the novel Monologue of Someone Who Got Used to Talking to Herself by Dimitri Verhulst, which follows the last days of famous cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke. We had a chance to talk to Mortier about his inspiration, the different elements that make up this unusual love story and why he shot on 35 mm.
Cineuropa: How influential was Vandenbroucke’s story?
Koen Mortier: In terms of the book, Frank Vandenbroucke’s story was the seed for the narrative, but it was only a source of inspiration, since nobody really knows what happened there. The element that attracted me the most to the novel was the fact that the whole story was told by the “gazelle” that Vandenbroucke spends his last night with. She is someone who’s never even heard of cycling, let alone of this star cyclist. She’s a virgin to the world the cyclist lives in, meaning that she has neither a specific opinion nor a judgement of him.
Do you think Angel will start a new dialogue on athletes’ addictions?
I didn’t want to focus on the doping; I think we all know how big it was in cycling in the 1990s and the millennium. I wanted to profile a cyclist who had always lived around doping, so it became a non-issue for him, and therefore it became a non-issue for the film, too. It had to look normal to be smuggling doping gear into Senegal, just as the needle and the fluid he pumps into his body is nothing more than a two-doses-per-day medication for him. What was more important was to observe how cyclists cope with it several years later. Are they addicted or psychologically disturbed? It’s sad and a real pity to see how incredible talents – like Vandenbroucke, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong – changed after the end of their careers. I always wonder who’s to blame for their first needle or their very first pill. I’m sure it was some relative or a coach, or some manager who saw the value of his cyclist increasing in line with the amount of doping he was doing. It’s neither my goal nor my task to open up a dialogue on addiction, but I wouldn’t mind if a young athlete were to get the message and avoid experimenting with chemicals.
How important was it to narrate the story of these two wildly different characters in such a dramatic way?
I wanted to create a love story with immense intensity and tension, and keep it rather minimalistic on the narrative side. I also wanted the line between reality and fiction to be very thin, as the story should be believable and true, but its interpretation to belong to a non-reality. Somehow, it’s an existential love story between two floating characters that come from completely different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. Angel is about love and death, about hope and despair. Usually, romantic literature praises madness, the devilish character of love, and death. I’ve conceptualised my film in line with those themes. I also “put” barbed wire around their story, giving it an unheimlich feeling with the camera and the music, which differentiates Angel from other love stories.
Speaking of these particular elements, you shot in Senegal, although the environment seems completely altered. Why did you detach your heroes from their actual location?
I had the feeling that the characters had to stay in their own cocoon, so I decided to separate them from reality and from the world around them right from the moment they meet. It’s as if nothing mattered any more – just the two of them in their own Milky Way. Together, they aren’t the prostitute and the cyclist; they are two little, scared human beings who need love and each other. Soulsavers’ music represented a break with the straightforward love story; it needed to create tension as a counterweight to their emotions. The camera gets nearer and nearer to their skin, crawling closer to their thoughts and feelings, but also adding an uneasy sensation to it, as if everything they do is an obvious wrong decision. The nightmares start cutting into the vibe of the film to interrupt their feelings, to make them understand that they’re living in a naïve dream, and to shake up the viewer and the characters.
Given that you were one of the co-producers, how easy was it to shoot on 35 mm?
That was a decision based on the needs of my DoP, Nicolas Karakatsanis. The Senegalese landscape creates the abstract impression of a Color Field painting that was, in his opinion, impossible to capture in digital format. So Karakatsanis thought that 35 mm film would support and absorb these vivid colours much better than a digital camera would; that was exactly the kind of technical input I needed to decide to shoot on 35 mm.
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