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Very Physical, Very Sensual: An Interview with Fabrice Du Welz

The director of "Alleluia" talks about his killer romance based on the true story that inspired "The Honeymoon Killers" and "Deep Crimson".
Alleluia, Fabrice Du Welz's sensual, brutal version of the "lonely hearts killers"—made into a 1969 film by Leonard Kastle, The Honeymoon Killers, and Arturo Ripstein's 1996 Deep Crimson—was a highlight of the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes last year, and is now getting a US theatrical release through Music Box Films' Doppelgänger Releasing arm. Shot close in intimate 16mm, the film juggles tones deftly to capture the loneliness, desire, horror, humor, and absurdity in an amour fou between two single sociopaths who find in each other an intense, primal attraction. But both persons are so distorted, and the love between them thereby turning so distorted, that it leads not to the greatest, strangest love affair—though you could call it that, I suppose—but the most perverse: the man sets up a scheme to seduce and rob women, and his lover, quickly beset by manic jealousy, ends up killing them.
The two stumble and trip their way through several murders which try them physically as well as spiritually, testing their blind love and body chemistry to the limit by inciting ever higher levels of tottering emotional precariousness as the man, Michel (Laurent Lucas), is tempted back into the fold of normal domestic love, and the woman, Gloria (Lola Dueñas), who was pulled away from her life alone in her home with her daughter, is pushed to take more and more extreme steps to keep the couple together. It's a frenzied and exhausting film expertly done, the tight camerawork achieving all that the jittery handheld "naturalism" of action-Hollywood and social art-house movies fails to do, going not for realism or immediacy but complicity (as between the lovers, so between us and them), intimacy, and myopia. Above all, it is the actors and du Welz's supreme dedication to their earthy carnality, the contours of their faces and fervor of their bodies, that so convince that this is love, lust, and insanity.
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At the Toronto International Film Festival last year I discussed the movie with its director, Fabrice Du Welz.

Fabrice Du Welz
NOTEBOOK: What was it about this story, this true story, that of the "Lonelyhearts" or "Honeymoon" killers, that made you want to make a film about it?
FABRICE DU WELZ: Well, it’s a strange story, in fact. You know [actress] Yolande Moreau? I met her at a festival, and I love her and I said to her “I want to make a movie with you, I want to give you a part, a very bitchy woman, very terrible and cruel,” stuff like that, and she said “Oh, yes!” [laughs]. She said “go write, find a subject.” And I was watching, again, Deep Crimson by [Arturo] Ripstein and the lights went on: that’s it, that’s a great story. Ripstein set the story in his native Mexico, so I can do the same thing, take the story and put it in Belgium. So, I start to write, and when I finish I present the script to Yolande, and at that time she was ill or something and she passed on it, saying it was too difficult, very violent and sexual. So I was looking for an actress and finally go to Lola [Dueñas] and I don’t regret anything.
NOTEBOOK: So it originated in seeing a quality in an actress and finding the story for that actress. Is that true also of Laurent Lucas, who plays Michel, who was also in your film Calvaire [2004]?
DU WELZ: I expected him, for this role. I received Belgian money from the government, and they asked me to have a Belgian actor, so it was a little tricky for me, but finally they accepted the idea that I would go back to Laurent, and so Laurent and Lola for me they were perfect. Lola was a little bit edgy because she’s Spanish, living in Paris, and nobody knows her in Paris. She’s a very great actress but she’s not very identifiable in the French cinema, so my producers were a little bit reluctant about her, saying “ah it’s going to be difficult, if we get a well-known French actress it’s going to be easier,” and I was a little bit reluctant because sometimes French cinema is from my perspective a little boring, a little bourgeois. Finally, a friend talked to me about Lola and I saw Yo, también [Me Too, 2009], and I met her and I was amazed by her energy, her power, her fragility, and I knew immediately she could embrace that character and be very, very powerful.
NOTEBOOK: And it was easier to convince her to do this role, this highly sexual, violent role?
DU WELZ: She was ready to do anything. We shot a lot of stuff, we got rid of a lot of stuff…
NOTEBOOK: ...Really? That surprises me, because it seems a very tight movie.
DU WELZ: Yeah, we shot a lot more. There is some different, to my perspective, great, great moments, very cinematic, but a little bit repetitive. So I decided to get rid of some stuff, to be very, very sharp, in every aspect of the story.
NOTEBOOK: I'd think that'd be a challenge, because the level of intensity in the film comes so quickly, after the first 15 minutes, once the couple is together, it keeps it up. To avoid repetition must be a real challenge in this film. How did you work to structure the story, was it always in these "acts" dedicated to the women victims?
DU WELZ: It was tricky. That’s the way I’m used to working, and how I liked to work: to take major risks. The problem with Alleluia is the tones, all the different tones, you know? Because you have comical, noir, thriller, musical, comedy, and I needed to keep current the whole, global vision of the movie. It was sometimes difficult. I don’t know why, but I had a faith that we could achieve something with the actors; we worked, I was very, very demanding with them and all the crew—and they gave me the best. I mean it, really. Because sometimes when it’s bad, it’s bad, believe me. I went through a terrible experience, but this was a kind of magic moment, a really great moment of shooting and collaboration. We had great fun. It was very demanding, very exhausting, but very great to do.
NOTEBOOK: The way you describe the atmosphere behind the camera I also find in front of the camera: an exhausted film, a film on the precipice of emptying itself out from its peak sexual, violent, emotional energy. I sensed how focused the movie was, how everyone was in it together. The whole movie is on the same wavelength.
DU WELZ: You’re right. It was the case, and I really badly need that. Especially with the terrible experience I had with the project just before this, Colt 45, and I had a very terrible time on that movie, and I needed to go back to my roots.
NOTEBOOK: Meaning what?
DU WELZ: My cinema. For me Alleluia is very close to my short, my first short, and also Calvaire, with the people I knew, I love. To my country.
NOTEBOOK: Would you describe it then as a retreat?
DU WELZ: Not a retreat, just a step back to feed my soul. Because I was very wounded, badly wounded after Colt 45, because it was a big budget with very important production, and it was beyond my control. It was terrible, a terrible moment. So doing Alleluia was for me to do something really important, and yeah, I don’t know if the movie is a success or will succeed, but it’s exactly the response I wanted to do, to make.
NOTEBOOK: I certainly sense that in the film, not even knowing that backstory. The parallels are very strong. The relationship between the two are incredibly intimate but the relationship of the film with the two is also intimate. You feel very close to everything; and not only physically close (because the camera is close to people), but emotionally close.
DU WELZ: It was tricky and difficult to do, because most of the time when you do a serial killer movie it’s always very cold. I was wounded, sometimes, to the response to my preceding movie [Vinyan, 2008], saying “well it looks beautiful, but the character we don’t feel close to,” and it was a very major risk doing a serial killer movie because I wanted the audience to be connected to that woman and to that man, because they have some emotions that can connect everybody, you know? Love, the expectation, and the dichotomy between our expectation and our instinct. That aspect, I was focused on being very close, very warming, and that’s why sometimes the film seems very disturbing for some people because they are concerned that they can relate to the expectations of that woman. They are very scared about what she can do; or, the opposite way, it’s a catharsis, you know. So, yeah, I’m very demanding to the audience, also. I want to push the audience. I think it’s very...healthy to do that.
NOTEBOOK: How do you achieve that intimacy, that empathy: how do you draw the audience into a film like this?
DU WELZ: I don’t know. I think the actors help me a lot. It’s strange because the actors have difficulty to talk in real life, so they just have that chemistry on screen.
NOTEBOOK: And a physical chemistry. It’s interesting you mention language problems, because it’s such a tactile, physical movie, and they have such particular faces. The chemistry is very primal. On the level of language, in a way, it doesn’t even make sense they would be together. But on a physical level, there’s this energy that makes immediate sense.
DU WELZ: That makes me very happy, because I was looking for that. Looking for a kind of sensuality. I’m a film lover, I’m a big cinephile, I love movies so much. Even when I was younger—and now it’s different, of course, screenings are different—when you go to the cinema you have a physical feeling. I feel something. Just like when you fall in love with a beautiful woman. Being in the cinema: the sound, the smell, all the aspects, the sound of the projector, the light, the dust in the light, is very physical, very sensual. That’s why I shot on 16mm. To be warm. On 16 you can see the imperfection of the face, you can see the skin, the sweat, almost smell. That’s the dimension of something that’s completely...look at the Marvel bullshit Hollywood stuff: there’s no sexuality at all. It’s terrible. They’re never horny, you know?
NOTEBOOK: I want to go back to what you were saying about not being distant to the characters, to the crime. My response, I don’t know if it is normal, was that I started being very sympathetic to the woman, who then is increasingly appearing crazy. Meanwhile, the man starts out seeming crazy but his path goes to normal. Your sympathies cross: you root for her for about half the film, and then switch to him. Was this always the idea?
DU WELZ: Yeah it was the idea, but it was very ambitious to complete, you know? It was very difficult. Especially the last act because suddenly all the stakes became more complex, because of the little girl, a much more beautiful woman, a bigger house. We re-wrote a lot during the last act, all in collaboration, but it was great to do. When I’m talking about pushing and demanding about the audience, you can demand to an audience if they connected with the characters. To play that little perverse game with the woman who seems very nice and lonely and becomes a real sociopath, and a man who looks very strange and fetishist and edgy and became...he could be a good father for the little girl at the end. We’re all like that. We all have different faces, and the circumstances...the love that we cross or not reveals ourselves in different manners,. And it’s a fable. I was very attached to the narrative aspect, the dramaturgic aspect of the character, the arc of the character. Just like the global vision we talked about—starting here and ending there—for her it was very, very funny. I tried to be organized.
NOTEBOOK: When one speaks of a film like that, a very organized film, it doesn’t have the aesthetics of this film. An organized film takes a step back, it’s distanced, pre-planned: the Coen brothers or Hitchcock. Everything is an image you have in your head which you then proceed to draw on the screen. Whereas Alleluia feels discovered as it goes along—perhaps with a high degree of secret planning. It seems moment by moment.
DU WELZ: In fact you’re right: it’s been very prepared. Very designed. But I was ready to get rid of every design, every preparation because I was focused only, always, on the emotions and the characters. I wanted to experiment to be in love, to tear apart, to be desperately sad about something, or jealous. I was very concerned about the emotion. And Lola gave me lots about that; all the cast. So I push them, of course. That’s why, also, I think, people who love the movie for the first time re-watch after and have a different pleasure. Really a different pleasure. But it’s the first of my movies—though of course it still divides—that it seems people look at the movie and say “wow, wow.”
NOTEBOOK: Does that make you happy, a less divisive movie than Calvaire or Vinyan?
DU WELZ: Yeah, of course. I’m happy. It’s strange because now that I have a little experience you always want to make some movie against the entire world, but you also want to whole entire world to love it. So I try to always be faithful to that line from Henri-Georges Clouzot that cinema has to be an aggression and a spectacle. That’s how I try to make my cinema. Now, I’m determined to focus on characters, because characters are the only way to find a connection to you, the audience. A real connection.
NOTEBOOK: To be aggressive and entertaining...How do you approach that with scenes of sex and violence? One of the most amazing scenes in the film is the first murder, during the blow-job. Because on paper that could be directed so poorly, so gross and unfair. And yet on film it is funny and sexy, it pays a wonderful homage to the supporting actress, this character who is about to be murdered. A woman who many filmmakers would either treat terribly, an object of ridicule, or neutrally: now she’s dead. Instead , she’s one of the loveliest people in the film.
DU WELZ: Absolutely, she was.
NOTEBOOK: How do you approach directing a scene like that?
DU WELZ: I was determined to treat the different crimes with different visual aspects. So for example the first murder I was inspired by Frenzy [1972], you know, Hitchcock’s style, very cut, but in fact I was very attached, as you mentioned, to making this woman very likable. And very human. All those characters are lonely, are looking for someone. We are all looking for someone. So we can relate to that. She’s a very nice woman: she’s funny just like people can be funny sometimes, how some people can talk, and talk, and talk, and not realize it. I would be very despicable to treat this with contempt. No: I want to be close to my characters, I want to be with them. That’s why with that woman, I wanted to treat her very, very good, and when she gives a blow-job, it’s something that, yeah, it’s a horny blow-job: it’s fantastic! Also it’s great because you have the other side: you have Gloria watching that, and you have Michel getting pleasure, and finally you create a tension, and then you break that moment with a very cut style. So it was very designed. The other murders are very designed too, in another perspective. Also the last murder has to be much more raw, and terrible, and dirty because at that moment their love is completely falling apart. So I tried to comment on something about their relationship in each murder, and also I like the bravura of a filmmaker to make things different and spectacular.
NOTEBOOK: The musical scene which follows this first murder, where did that come from?
DU WELZ: It was part of the original idea: but I wasn’t sure. We mentioned the different tones. We did it, I worked with my composer Vincent Cahay and asked him to write a song based on the theme and I wrote the lyrics. In the first place, in the script it was something that Gloria tells, speaks, and now she sings. But I wasn’t sure at all; it was a funny idea. So we worked on it, and on the set we made it and everybody was amazed. Everybody was so impressed by the moment, especially afterwards, when Gloria grabs the saw and starts sawing the dead body. Okay, we made it, we saw on the dailies it was so funny, but I was ready to get rid of it if it didn’t work. In the editing room we made a screen test and everyone said you have to keep it.
NOTEBOOK: It’s in a very important place in the film, right after the first murder and you may be losing sympathy for Gloria. This touch of humor, humanity and silliness keeps us along where you could have lost us.
DU WELZ: Earlier you mentioned a kind of realism, and in fact I’m very attached to this kind of way of making movies, réalisme magique. I’m looking for an idea of poetry, a poetry of loneliness, I don’t know. I don’t care about realism, I don’t care to be realist. I care to be a realist in my visceral aspect, you can see the tone of the movie is a little bit ‘50s.
NOTEBOOK: You were saying you are quite a cinephile and you were thinking of Deep Crimson and Frenzy. Do you often watch or discuss films with your cast and crew?
DU WELZ: Yes, on this one there was one movie that followed me all during the preparation and the shooting: Possession [1981] by [Andrzej] Żuławski. I love that movie so much. The energy makes me in a state of fragility and creativity. Just watching Possession [gasps] gives me a lot of air.
NOTEBOOK: What does the title of your film mean to you?
DU WELZ: Well, the title, I don’t like that, I don’t like too much to comment on the title. But it’s really the fact that with Calvaire and this it’s going to be a small trilogy about mad love, set in Belgium and with very strange characters. Calvaire was the first part, and it had a Biblical, religious aspect and tone. So “Alleluia,” I was very keen about that title. Also, it’s a kind of prayer, an appeal to God to love; we all appeal to something transcendante, but in fact we are human, we are full of desire and instinct. So that dichotomy is rich, but there is no cynical aspect.
NOTEBOOK: This third film on amour fou, what will it be?
DU WELZ: I think I will first make a movie that is more open, and then go back to this.

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