Fabrice du Welz made his directorial debut with the stunningly uncompromising Calvaire in 2004. With Alleluia, he returns to the location and the star of his first feature film, as well as its emotional intensity, this time revisiting the story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, which was also the subject of Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Andrew Lane’s Lonely Hearts (1991) and Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996). Gloria (Lola Dueñas) meets Michel (Laurent Lucas) through a dating site. Michel is a small-time conman who preys on lonely women, but Gloria is different from his previous marks. Madly in love with Michel, Gloria passes herself off as his sister so that she never has to leave him, but soon her uncontrollable jealousy takes them down a murderous path. Exploring the extremes love can lead to, du Welz’s take on the story is carnal and visceral, set against the background of a bleak, desolate Belgian landscape.
Virginie Sélavy met Fabrice du Welz at Film4 FrightFest in August where the director talked about mad love, his abhorrence of realism, and Bogart and the hippopotamus.
Virginie Sélavy: Alleluia is the second film in your Ardennes trilogy.
Fabrice du Welz: Yes, the idea is to do a trilogy about the theme of ‘mad love’ around Laurent Lucas in the Belgian Ardennes. Calvaire was the first one, now there’s Alleluia, and there’ll be a third part.
Why did you choose the Ardennes as a location?
I spent part of my youth in the Ardennes, it’s a place that is very singular and has always terrified me. I spent a little while in a boarding school there and I was quite troubled by the hostile nature, the perplexing people and the baffling weather. With Calvaire, the idea was to make a film that would play with horror film conventions, but located in Europe, which produced this slightly surprising melange of genres. I didn’t want to make a would-be American horror film. It was the same thing with Alleluia. I play with some thriller and film noir conventions of American cinema, but at the same time I’m very attached to my Francophone culture. And the third film will do a similar thing.
Why is the trilogy based around Laurent Lucas?
Because I think that he’s an under-used actor. He has an incredible range, a terrible ambiguity, he can be very beautiful and very ugly, he can be troubling, unfathomable, difficult to capture. There’s a mystery in Laurent that really fascinates me.
What do you think the effect is of placing an American story in a French context?
The original story of the Honeymoon Killers took place in the United States, even if Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin, but I don’t want to justify the context. The French have this terrible disease, which is, justifying violence through social context. Since the nouvelle vague, French cinema has consecrated realism above all. But before the nouvelle vague there were great filmmakers like Cocteau and Franju, who made films that were on the frontier of dreams, or at least that developed a fantastical universe – not horror, fantastical. The inventor of fantastical cinema was Méliès, he was French. In American cinema, in Japanese cinema, in Almodóvar’s films, you can talk about violence without justifying everything through the mother, the alcoholic father, etc. I’m exaggerating but it is something that is deeply troubling. The CNC [National Centre of Cinematography and the Moving Image, the public body responsible for the production and the promotion of French films] is dominated by this. With the CNC you always have to justify violence through the context. Some people do this divinely well – Jacques Audiard – others not so well. I absolutely don’t want to be part of this, I want to make a kind of cinema that is transgressive and poetic. And that’s what I’m looking for in the context too. Context is as important as actors to me. I look for a fascinating context that I can play with as I would with an actor, and through that try to achieve – modestly; I’m not saying I succeed – some kind of macabre poetry.
Were you inspired more by the real-life story or by the films that have been made about it?
I was inspired by Yolande Moreau. I met her at a festival and I’ve been fascinated by her for a long time. She’s a very impressive actress. I said, ‘I’d like to make a film with you in which you’d play a total bitch’. She said, ‘yes, great, go ahead’. That same week I re-watched Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson, the story of the Honeymoon Killers adapted in Ripstein’s country, Mexico. And I thought that was the perfect role for Yolande, she’d make a hell of a Martha Beck. I started working on the script, but it was very violent and very sexual, and Yolande said she couldn’t do it. So I was hired to make Colt 45, which was hell, it was the worst experience of my life. After that, I returned to Alleluia because the film had funding, and it was really vital to me on a personal level. It was almost an existential thing because the experience of Colt 45 had been so harrowing. But I had no actress. I was ready to abandon the film if I couldn’t find an actress. The producers asked me to pick a reasonably well-known French actress, but French cinema is so bourgeois these days that it’s difficult with French actors. I’d seen Lola [Dueñas] in Yo, también and I thought it could work. When I met her she said, ‘I’m the one you’re looking for, you can stop looking, I’ll do it 100%.’ But then I had to sell Lola to my producers and that was hard. They were saying, the script is difficult, and now you’ve picked a Spanish actress that no one knows. I fought for it and now everyone’s very happy.
It’s also an interesting choice because it plays with the fact that Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin. And it adds something to her character, she’s an outsider in a foreign society.
I saw that after. It was the life and death urges that deeply fascinated me in the story, the attraction between them, like magnets, and the character arcs. At first, Michel is presented as the predator and Gloria as the victim, you’re scared for her. And in the end it’s completely the opposite, she’s become an ogress and he’s a scared little boy. The whole journey, with the fetishism of one and the jealousy of the other, was a very joyous and fun thing to build.
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Gloria is a great character, both monstrous and very human, but in the end you get the impression that she’s very simply a force of nature, beyond any moral codes.
Yes, that’s right. My films have always been a little at odds with the audience, I’ve often been criticised for my lack of empathy with the characters. Vinyan was particularly badly received for that reason. And it was my fault because I really wanted to keep the characters at a distance, at least in the first part. So with Alleluia I was wondering how to make it resonate with the viewers. And I thought it had to be through mad love, because that’s something in which we can all recognize ourselves, even if Michel and Gloria are serial killers, lunatics with no morals, children who never think of good and evil. After the first murder, you understand that they’ve really found each other. They are polymorphous perverts. They have freed themselves from moral rules. And at the same time they reflect something of ourselves, in particular the dichotomy between that unquenchable thirst for this ideal passionate love, which we all want, and the basic urge for the destruction, the annihilation, the crushing of the other. The couple can be the nest of fascism, there is always one who will enslave the other.
Michel tells Gloria about his past, which may or may not be true, but we never get any explanation as to what happened to Gloria with her husband. Why did you treat the characters differently in that respect?
Because Gloria was also a response to Gloria in Calvaire. In Calvaire, Gloria is a character who doesn’t exist, or rather that you never see but that people talk about all the time. Calvaire is the story of a lonely, desperate innkeeper and a travelling singer, played by Laurent, who arrives at the inn. The innkeeper tells him that he’s lost his wife, she was called Gloria and she was a singer. And he transfers his affection onto Laurent, turns him into his wife and starts calling him Gloria. This is something that will be in the whole trilogy. The films can be seen separately but there will be a Gloria in the third part too. I like creating connections between the characters. And I thought that in Alleluia Gloria didn’t need a story.
Was the witchcraft element in the real-life story or did you add it?
It was in the real-life story but it was never used in Kastle’s film, or Ripstein’s, or the one by Lane. Raymond Fernandez practised black magic, it was a way for him to condition his libido. He was convinced that it helped his sexuality, he thought it made him an amazing lover. I found that very funny.
Why did you choose to film in 16mm?
It seemed to me the most appropriate format for the story. There’s an old-school aspect to it with the smoke, the grain, it had what I was looking for, something olfactory, sensual, because digital is very cold and clinical. It’s like porn today, it’s horrible, it’s surgical. The porn I used to watch as a teenager was sensual, curvy, warm, grainy. And film allows that. I was looking for a sensual experience. I love cinema and I regret that it’s so sanitised today. So, very modestly, I wanted to go back to something where you have smells, bodies, skin, breaths.
That love of cinema appears in the reference to Humphrey Bogart in African Queen. Why that film specifically?
I’m a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and I’ve always thought it was insane to see this big star imitate a hippopotamus in African Queen, especially as he was ill. The story of the film’s making is mythical. John Huston, a great man of a type that doesn’t exist anymore, didn’t give a damn about the film, all he wanted was to go hunting with the Maasai. And I was looking for something that would be funny but would also function as a sort of symbol for their love. The hippopotamus scene, replayed by Laurent at the cinema, makes Gloria laugh the first time, it’s the most sumptuous moment, the peak of their love. Then there’s the scene in the bedroom where he does it and eventually she laughs. And then there’s the moment when she doesn’t laugh anymore. I was looking for something that would indicate the state of their love throughout the film, and to use Bogart imitating a hippopotamus as a referent really amused me.
And you end with a dreamlike scene in a cinema.
It seemed coherent to me in the sense that cinema is the place where they fantasized about their love. Many people live their lives vicariously through film and I think that there is a dichotomy between aspirations that are typically feminine and masculine – without making stupid generalisations. Some women tend to idealise things while men often accept reality more readily. There’s something like that going on with Michel and Gloria. I chose to end the story in a cinema because cinema is heaven – or hell, I don’t know.
Why call the film Alleluia?
I really liked this title, it sounds like a prayer. People have said to me that it’s a very cynical title. But there is no cynicism involved. It really is a prayer, a prayer to love, to God, and then the story goes another way. We all want love so desperately in our lives, but are we capable of it? What are we capable of? As Celine says, ‘it’s within the reach of poodles’, and yet… That’s what accompanied me throughout the film and I pass no judgement on anything. So the title, this sort of call to something, I see no cynicism in it.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy