Belgian director Fabrice du Welz is known for his extremely violent and gory films, which typically reach a fever-pitch of intensity if they do not start from an already nerve-wracking place. His aesthetic project is one of confrontation, and his interest lies in exploring limit-experiences of intense emotions and sensations, of the kind which produce both psychological and physical pain. Already in his phenomenal 1999 short film A Wonderful Love (Quand on est amoureux, c’est merveilleux), he centers on an ordinary and unassuming woman, living in a disgusting apartment, who “falls in love” with the corpse of a male stripper she accidentally murdered. It is gruesome, funny, sweet, and disturbing all at the same time. His early feature films were part of a similar project and share this wonderful, productive collision of tones, Calvaire (2004) projecting the psychosexual hang-ups of its main character onto a brutish fight for survival in a rural hellscape, Vinyan (2008) following a grieving couple looking for their son in the hostile Myanmar jungle, and Alléluia (2014) telling a darkly funny love story between murderers inspired by the Lonely Hearts Killers. After encountering significantly less success with much bigger budgets and much more conventional films (2014’s French cop thriller Colt 45 and the 2016 American revenge flick Message from the King), Du Welz has scaled things back and returned to his origins in Adoration. Like his most accomplished films, Adoration tells a disturbing love story, but by contrast, it is almost entirely devoid of blood and gore. Its confrontational aspect lies not in the intensity of violence, but in that of love.
Thomas Gioria (Custody) plays Paul, a shy and kind teenager who spends his days idly walking in the woods that surround the psychiatric institution his mother works at. One day, he meets the young Gloria (Fantine Harduin, already great in Michael Haneke’s Happy End but here delivering a performance on an entirely other level), a patient from the institution, and carried away by her energy, her passion but also her paranoia, they escape. This is a story of love and madness, but to argue that it promotes a clichéd and dangerous image of mental illness would be to miss the entire point: Adoration is a fable about passion, freedom, and the ecstasy of love, the idealism of childhood, the limitless imagination of children and their unquenchable thirst for life. It is a visceral exploration of intense emotions which we usually keep bottled in because, in the real world, they would destroy us.
We talked to Du Welz about avoiding cuteness and cloying sentimentality when making a fantasy film about children, taking risks, working closely with actors, and finding inspiration in the poetic realism of the French cinema from the 1930s.
NOTEBOOK: It seems to me that Adoration is quite different from your previous films. What was the genesis of the project?
FABRICE DU WELZ: Maybe it’s less of a genre movie, so that could be why it’s a little different. But ultimately, no, it isn’t that dissimilar. I think my other films might have been a little more excessive, bloody, or twisted. Here, there is a form of purity, or at least a desire for simplicity that is more mature. I wanted to make a film that was more centered, more simple, more lean in the way it unfolds. And I really wanted to approach this feeling of the absolute with adolescents, especially with the character of the young Paul, played by Thomas Gioria, to show this awakening, this love, this quest for the absolute. Keeping these extreme promises seemed to me a very beautiful and risky challenge. I tried to make a film with less direct influences, maybe a tiny bit more mature, but in any case I’ve tried to take some risks. As always, I don’t like to repeat the things I’ve already done, I try to explore, and because there is a real porosity between my life as a man and my life as a filmmaker, one makes me grow and the other responds to that.
NOTEBOOK: The visual style of the film reminded me a lot of your previous films but also of films belonging to what we call French extremism, with the mobile camera, the realist aesthetic and the strong contrasts of light, a lot of obscurity, and the presence of nature. But here, as you mentioned, there is less blood and violence, but still this sensation of fear throughout. How did you work with that visual style?
DU WELZ: It’s not exactly fear. For me, it’s more like a disturbing strangeness. Probably because my films are not realistic, I’m not a realist—I try to set something in place and then to direct towards something dreamlike, more sensorial or sensual. But the difference on this film I think is the approach and the way we shot it. In several aspects, we shot the film almost like a documentary. By which I mean, there was a work done ahead of filming where we set the choices of light and texture, but while filming, it was like filming a documentary. This meant that we really put a lot of responsibility on the actors; I asked them to be themselves, to never cheat. Even [actor] Benoît Poelvoorde, I pushed him to places he isn’t necessarily used to be in. It is fundamentally important for me that the actors be in the here and now, and absolutely not in something that appears fabricated. This time, I didn’t let myself be carried by a design I could have developed ahead of the shoot. Instead, I was really focused on the actors, I really held on to their vision of the moment, and in complete collaboration with them.
NOTEBOOK: I had seen Thomas Gioria in Custody, where he was phenomenal. Fantine Harduin was very different in Happy End. How did you work with them to make them enter this unreal and sometimes frightening universe?
DU WELZ: I don’t really know how to explain, but I push the actors a lot. I need them, every time and on any film—which can create issues—to give me everything. I need them to be totally invested. I enter their lives in an intense and total way. Of course, it has to take place in a spirit of collaboration and cheerfulness—with the children it went super well, we got on really, really well—but I had to give them big responsibilities about their characters. Especially Fantine, about illness, about schizophrenia, and certain mental troubles. Then I pushed them and pushed them, I didn’t let them go. I was always with them, and I’m a director who works with his actors a bit like a sculptor, I’m really with them. So I push them, I speak to them during takes, I touch them during takes, I really work with them, it’s a very close collaboration. Then at some point, it becomes a game, yet they know that when the camera is rolling, it’s time to deliver. There is an atmosphere that settles in. Which is the risk of the film—if the whole team hadn’t completely been invested, it would have been ridiculous. It had to be striking. It could only be striking, Thomas Gioria had to be absolutely arresting—in the troubles of his character, his moods, his fear, his anguish.
NOTEBOOK: The film also feels like a fable or a fairytale, and often, films that evolve in that genre eventually become comfortable and we can just sit back and admire the style. But here, beside the sense of wonder, there is also fear, which really keeps us on our toes.
DU WELZ: Something that was really important for me was to avoid all forms of cloying cuteness, of prettiness. Most films for children are cute and pretty, and I hate everything cute, pretty and sweet. I wanted to make a children’s film about children who are overwhelmed by feelings that are too big for them. When you’re 14 years old and you fall in love, you’re devastated, because you’re not used to it, and it’s a new sensation… It’s like a state of possession where you are haunted by the other. That is sort of what happens to Paul, he falls very deeply in love, that’s why there is a sense of the absolute that is almost mystical.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have some specific sources of inspiration?
DU WELZ: Yes, there are very powerful films that have accompanied me, but this is a film that is much more distanced from cinematic references than all of my other works. Before anything else, I am a cinephile, I see a lot of films and I’m obsessed with cinema. But Adoration was less guided by any model film. Of course, I had in mind some films by Rosselini, or Ivan’s Childhood from Tarkovsky—films like that, but I really wanted to be as personal and free as possible.
It’s a film that reconnects with a kind of poetic realism that was popular in France in the 1930s and 1940s. We could call it a fantasy or genre film, but it isn’t under any American influence, in any case not under the influence of 1970s American cinema. It is much more heavily influenced by the poetic realism of 1930s French cinema. I had this idea of reconnecting with that imaginary and that poetry, which is rooted in realism but topples into a kind of attraction that is the most cinematic possible.
NOTEBOOK: The film centers on these two children, but during their escape, they meet several isolated and sometimes strange adults. Why these encounters?
DU WELZ: When we’re profoundly in love, we created a bubble, we create a world, and everything outside of it looks dubious or dangerous. And the girl’s illness, her paranoia, progressively contaminates Paul. That was also the interest of making a film taking place outdoors, a summer film, but one that is profoundly claustrophobic. It’s a strong contrast.
NOTEBOOK: You talked about the way this film was born in almost theoretical ideas and cinephilia, and then, as you shot it, it became an entirely visceral thing of its own. How do you make that jump? Do you spend a lot of time experimenting with the camera?
DU WELZ: There is a lot of work on the aesthetic ahead of filming. We work a lot on textures, on locations, we spend a lot of time thinking about the space. The space often affects the characters or the direction. The work of location scouting, for me, is very long and difficult. I look for a space that will naturally influence the characters. And then, after a lot of rather dogmatic work on some aesthetic aspects of the film is done and everything is in place, the experimentation work with the actors can begin. Once the material is here, the locations are here, and the choices of lighting are set, I can really start working with the actors, in 360 degrees, moving the camera anyway I want, and I follow the actors. There, I really work like a visual artist, and rely more on my intuition.
Then, there is a more cerebral and difficult type of work that returns at the editing stage, where we ask different questions and try to articulate the film in the best way possible. But I’m an especially intuitive person. Not that I don’t reflect on things, but I really know what I want. Or rather, I really know what I don’t want. And then, I have precious collaborators who share the same visual sense as me.
NOTEBOOK: The characters, as the title indicates, are seized by extremely strong emotions, and your previous films also dealt with such extremes. But here, in addition to fear, there is also love permeating the film.
DU WELZ: Love expels the idea of morality. There is no good or bad, there is only the will to love. I have fought against my own shyness for a long time, and here, in this film, I freed myself from it by saying “let’s go, let’s deal with it.” And in the end, the fact of approaching this kind of extreme emotion in this way, allows me not to be in a judging position, because the characters themselves are not in a judging position but in a consenting position. They’re in an almost mythical movement that expels all judgment. That was something that was very productive, especially at the editing stage, where we were carried by their quest for absolute love, like mystics who are not even human anymore, but above that.