The easiest way to categorize the films of Belgium writer/director Olivier Smolders is Lynchian, but for most of his work, that's largely inappropriate, because Smolders is more of an intense yet soft-spoken poet who matches introspective prose with stark visuals that often shock, erotically stimulate, and softly lull viewers into a dreamlike state – quite distinct from David Lynch's loopy plays on the boundaries between nightmares and open-eyed reality.
Whether it's the master shots that make up Adoration (1987), his disturbing portrait of a true-crime case of cannibalism (reviewed as part of Cult Epics' Cinema of Death collection), or Smolder's autobiographical Mort a Vignole / Death at Vignole (1998), drawn from his home movies and inspired by a personal tragedy, Smolders maintains compact narratives that aren't indulgent, prolonged, or pretentious, and whatever filmmaking tools he applies – master shots vs. heavy montage, for example – they're appropriate for each film's subject matter, and tone.
Like Lynch, Smolders' characters and observations are part of a customized worldview, but each of the 10 films in this excellent collection are layered poems that demand repeat viewings, since Smolders' sparse prose (all in French, with optional English subtitles) is sometimes more potent than his images, and one needs to re-inspect the images to get the full impact.
Like a surrealist painter, he recognizes that groups of words can create a powerful impact when applied within a specific tempo and when contrasted with seemingly benign visuals.
The concluding gore in Adoration is graphically conveyed in a series of uninterrupted takes, whereas the cadavers near the end of Mort a Vignole collectively arise from their formaldehyde coffins, revealed as anatomy class models in poses not dissimilar from Dr. Gunther von Hagens's plastination poses that showcase the veins, muscles, and minutia of the human body.
Whereas Adoration deals with obsessive love and the fusion of two beings into one, Vignole focuses on family blood lines, and coming to terms with mortality. Smolders mixes colour and black and white home movies with stills from his childhood in the Belgian Congo, and he interweaves moments with siblings to reflections on the death of his stillborn daughter in Vignole, culminating in the black & white footage of anatomy class cadavers.
L'amateur / The Amateur (1997) deals with an amateur photographer's quest to catalogue nude women on film, while simultaneously capturing their vulnerabilities, self-loathing, pride, and contempt for the photographer, often seen setting up the corner where the women will pose, or placing objects in front of the camera as symbols linking himself to whatever theme or personality he's hoping to test. The subjects range from college age girls to elderly and utterly ordinary women, a married woman, and a temptress.
Seeking new ground, he transforms his apartment studio into a pitch black room, and Smolders adjusts his lighting and use of close-ups to emphasize contrasts between each subject who returns for a second shoot. There's an admitted eeriness to the short, but it becomes clear Smolders isn't crafting a thriller about a psycho about to lose control and commit a string of mass murder and/or sodomy; it's basically the lead character's self-reflections on how one's persona affects the physical body.
Or something like that.
More impenetrable is Neuvaine / Novena (1984), another longer short that has two threads: a troubled seminary student sent away to do penance for nine days, and a filmmaker who checks in to the same seminary to write his latest work. Both storylines quickly blur into the observations of the writer's constant stream of thoughts, and Smolders intercuts a girl, possibly from the writer's past, and the seminary's cook who serves him soup each day. The narration is ongoing yet slow and measured, and sometimes it becomes a vicious attack towards a character.
In the case of the cook, while the writer eats his soup, he mentally reduces the older woman to an odiferous wretch, and plots an imaginary torment that Smolders accentuates by holding his camera on the woman's disturbingly blank face, and dead, underlit eye sockets. It's the short's most effective scene, whereas the most revolting involves a pig dragged into the tiled bathing quarters, and killed on site with on-camera bloodletting.
(Obviously one major chasm few North American filmmakers have crossed is either showing or having an animal killed for their film, and it's a shock tactic that remains almost exclusive to European filmmakers.)
In Ravissements / Rapture 1999), Smolders takes excerpts from the theological writings of Therese d'Avila, and again applies static images to prose that chronicles the rules of preparing for and submitting to a rapture. The subjects are again beautiful young women who function as novitiates that Smolders photographs from increasingly closer camera positions, until their blank expressions serve as similarly emotionless tableaux for d'Avila's clinical prose.
The theme of death is heavily interwoven in Smolder's surreal salute to Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz, Pensees et visions d'une tete coupee / Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head, a Hieronymus Bosch-type artist whose work centered on humans in various stages in torment, as depicted in expansive canvases with gore galore. Smolders has basically taken a standard documentary and chopped it up, using quotes from the long-dead artist, and periodic statements by a historian (Smolders) filling in a few bits of Wiertz' life.
The museum designed to house the painter's work is like a great multi-roomed barn, displaying paintings as small as a counter, or as big as a three-storey building. Inside the museum, Smolders stages a tour for arriving guests: nattily dressed dwarves who accentuate the painter's mad visions and ego that bleed from the more disturbing works dealing with suicide, infanticide, piles of baby bodies, and monsters opening up their innards while half-naked humans are torn apart by tentacled monsters.
It's a clever play on a predictable film genre, and Smolders uses vivid sounds with his montage of close-ups to evoke the narratives in specific paintings. The short's most unsettling sequence deals with the last moments of a guillotined head, and what the painter allegedly claimed to have seen in real life are paralleled in the headless images embedded in further paintings.
A flash cut of a dying animal is later revealed to be a lengthy pig slaughter (again) that Smolders intercuts with coarse stag porn before the doc's narrative is once again realigned to Wiertz' work. The film closes on a marvelous final shot, and Smolders' own wry closing statement on the film we've just seen.
The museum footage is in colour, whereas the pig slaughter is in grainy black & white, as are a surreal stagings of the dead artist, a figurative motif of a nude child carrying a baby pig, and a few shots of nude portraiture.
Some footage and shots of expressionless actresses seen in Ravissements are repurposed in La philosophie dans le boudoir / Philosophy in the Boudoir (1991), wherein Smolders takes extracts from the Marquis De Sade's nutbar text and applies them to scenes of a man in a prison cell, and single or groups of women often standing with the same blank expressions as the man. Perhaps to characterize De Sade's libertine philosophy and rude text as words and ideas worthy of anyone, Smolders alternates his actors, with several men portraying (presumably) the incarcerated De Sade.
The director's cheeky sense of humour pops up in the rich colour short Point de fuite / Vanishing Point (1988), wherein a class plays a particularly naughty trick on a teacher, whom Smolders uses as the straight man victimized by the class' wicked sense of play. The compositions are clean and stark, and Philippe Marion's score almost mocks the teacher's efforts to teach the kids no matter what's going on.
L'art d'aimer / The Art of Loving (1985), another colour short, is probably the weakest of the ten films, mostly because it's a blurry monologue (read by Smolders) from the perspective of a man confused about past events from his youth, and the fate of his mother. Smolder's voice is deadly monotone, and the short drones on towards a climax set in an old age home, and a room filled with men and women suffering from diverse ailments, or seniors trapped in some darkened mental gloom.
Mental anguish is all that's present in the film Seuls / Alone (1989). Shot like a grungy medical documentary, Smolders and co-director Thierry Knauff intercut shots of several children at a Belgium psychiatric clinic.
The kids are shown with forlorn expressions, twicthing their eyes, sometimes smiling, shaking, jumping, rocking their heads side to side, or smacking their heads with horrific glee against walls. It's a minimalist work that captures the intense monotony of lost and disturbed young minds, and maintains a gritty intensity.
The DVD's bonus materials are a trailer for Nuit Noire / Black Night (2004), and two super-shorts for the Court-Circuit series. In both cases, Smolders has crafted two themed montage-trailers: Exercices Spirituels (2005) has clips from his prior films (dead pig, again!) with personal thoughts on cinema, and his recurrent images and themes; and Images amoureuses, Images de mort (2003) is a slide show montage with different commentary.
The most important extra for this set is the fat booklet that reproduces an interview with the director in its original French and English translations, where Smolders discusses various imagery, obsessions, and specific films in a straightforward Q&A.
Fans of the director's feature-length debut Black Night will definitely want this stellar collection, while others will find some striking use of filmic minimalism and surrealism that exploded in Black Night.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan