Dominique Deruddere • Director of The Chapel
"Is talent a blessing or a curse?"
- We met with the Belgian director who’s back with a new feature film rife with dramatic tension
Dominique Deruddere, nominated for an Oscar in 2000 thanks to Everybody’s Famous, is making his return with The Chapel [+see also:
interview: Dominique Deruddere
film profile], which was presented in the opening slot of the Ostend Film Festival. It’s a psychological drama which follows a young virtuoso pianist who’s taking part in the final of the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Competition while wrestling with her own inner demons.
Cineuropa: How did the project come about?
Dominique Deruddere: A few years ago, I was working on a screenplay with French novelist Erik Orsenna. One evening, while we were watching the final of the Queen Elizabeth Competition, he said to me: "It’s strange that Belgian filmmakers haven’t ever focused on the Queen Elizabeth Competition, it’s the perfect subject for a film!"
I knew he was right, but apart from a whodunnit along the lines of: "There are 12 of them locked up in a house and one of them dies", I didn’t really have any good ideas. A few years later, my youngest son started to play piano, very diligently. He practiced for 6 or 7 hours a day; he was incredibly focused. It was a special relationship that he was developing, which brought me back to my own relationship with my parents when I told them I wanted to make films. That’s where the idea for the screenplay took shape.
How does an artistic calling come about, and to what extent does it belong to us?
Talent is a subject I find interesting, I also explored it in my film Everybody’s Famous, which tells the story of a girl who didn’t have a talent but who wanted to succeed at all costs. In this instance, we’ve got a girl with a lot of talent but who needs to overcome significant obstacles to succeed. At the end of the day, is talent really a blessing, or a curse? Is it really worth it?
Jennifer encounters plenty of external obstacles, but it’s mostly inner obstacles we see her wrestling with.
Yes, without giving too much away, she has to overcome her own trauma. She’s tormented by a vague memory, and once she’s isolated in The Chapel, where they rehearse for the competition, her memories float back up to the surface. She ends up understanding what happened at the time with her parents.
On that note, how does her relationship with her parents play out, and whose dream is actually hanging in the balance?
It’s something I see when I make films with children. Their parents are on set and they’re often the ones who are most nervous. I think parents can feed into talent as much as destroy it. Often, children are there to satisfy their parents’ dream, to reverse their frustration. In Jennifer’s case, it’s a real vocation. I spent a lot of time talking with the people taking part in the competition, and when I asked them when they’d started practicing for the competition, they often said: "From birth!" It’s something they truly desire, but parental pressure isn’t always welcome and can even destroy our love of doing something.
Can we talk about the film’s incredible narrative set-up: passionate participants, the competition and then The Chapel, the place where all these "adversaries" are gathered together for the days leading up to the final. It’s an ideal narrative setting, with unity of time and place, and a perfect mix of protagonists.
It’s a very original set-up, only the Belgians could have orchestrated it! It falls somewhere between masochism and Machiavellianism. Lots of wonderful friendships are forged, but there are enmities too. In the ‘80s, one of the participants didn’t say a word for an entire week! It’s an incredible set-up, even if, at the end of the day, all they do, apart from eat, is play the piano. But the setting creates the tension. It’s not a thriller, it’s a drama with suspense. The tension is primarily psychological. It would only take one word to tip our characters over the edge.
How would you describe Jennifer?
She’s someone who doesn’t communicate at all, she’s trapped in her own trauma, she’s very cold. This type of film relies heavily on the main character’s performance. I needed the perfect actress. I think I must have seen every single Flemish actress between 20 and 30 years old! I was incredibly lucky to have met Taeke Nicolaï. She wasn’t a pianist, so she practiced and practiced in order to develop the right arm movements and the right movements for the rest of her body, to allow the music to flow through her.
What was the greatest challenge?
For the piano playing to seem real! Often in films about music, it’s not credible. In this film, we wanted viewers to forget they’re watching an actress and for them to believe she’s playing along with the orchestra.
(Translated from French)
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.