A couple of years ago I asked Woody Allen in an interview about his deep respect for Bergman movies. Woody Allen answered: “You know, when I want to say something serious, I go to a certain point, then I stop and make a joke, as I feel it will be too painful to go past this point, to go really deep. The thing with Bergman is, that he is not afraid to go past this point, and that’s where my respect for his movies comes from. I am aware that he is ready to go into deep and dangerous waters, whereas I am always looking for the shore or, for that matter, a life-buoy.”
Of course, I tried to convince him that making a joke at a painful moment doesn’t make the situation less painful. On the contrary, the comedian’s awareness of tragedy, makes it all the more moving. At the 40th Chicago International Film Festival I saw several great examples: Whisky by the Uruguayan directors Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella and Bitter Dream by the Iranian director Mohsen Amiryoussefi. Two great ‘tragi-comedies’, as we call them in the Lowlands, that both premiered in Cannes and that upon their arrival in Chicago were already given prizes, luckily. The third example however, that was also shown in Chicago, has a less universal comic appeal. It is made by two friends from Paris, Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, who found no interest thus no money for their idea in France and who turned to neighbouring country Belgium to make their first film. Aaltra is a black comedy like no other. An interview with it’s creators.
France – Finland: 3000 Kilometres in a Wheelchair
Benoît Deléphine and Gustave Kervern are two befriended filmmakers from Paris. Together they are responsible for Aaltra , the first wheelchair road movie. Deléphine: “Our two handicapped protagonists do misuse their handicap terribly.” Kervern: “Yes, they are rotten and bad, and their handicap doesn’t change this.”
In France they had some success with comic sketches for television. As the French Spitting Image -duo they wrote their own texts and played their own characters. They had never tried directing before, but, as Deléphine recounts: “We read a lot about directors that we admired, like Woody Allen and the guys from Monty Python, especially Terry Gilliam, and it turned out that all of them regretted one thing: that they had focused so much on verbal instead of visual humor. Their respect for silent films was amazing.”
Deléphine and Kervern wrote a script with a minimum amount of words, only thirty pages, and they called it: road movie for wheelchairs. The most important scenes and dialogues were written down. The rest was kept open for improvisation. A lot of dialogues and ideas for scenes were developed on the spot. Kervern: “We wanted to make a road movie, literally, a movie that arises from being on the road. A real work in progress.”
Aaltra became the story of two men: Ben (played by Benoît Deléphine) and Gus (played by Gustave Kervern). One is a commuter who is estranged from his wife, by the loss of their baby. His life is in ruins, private and professional. The other is a surly silenced farmer, busy with insecticides. Ben and Gus are living in the same village in the north of France, and as they hate their lives, they hate each other. Through an accident with a tractor (brand name: Aaltra) both men get paralyzed and wheelchair-bound and together they decide to check out the tractor company in faraway Finland, not by train, plane or automobile, but by wheelchair.
Deléphine: “To be honest, the whole trip to Finland was made up to meet with Aki Kaurismäki. We were so happy that he agreed to play a part in our first film. Kaurismäki’s films are a great inspiration. The people in his films are in the saddest situations, but in the midst of all the turmoil, they stay close to their own dignity. For us, Kaurismäki is one of the great masters. We didn’t want to imitate him, for the simple reason that we do not master his technique. But while making Aaltra these typical and often silenced Kaurismäki-characters were in our heads all the time.”
Kervern: “Why not say that we despise French cinema. All these films about rich people that talk a lot, and say nothing, and just dwell in their big and expensive apartments. French films very seldom show common people. We love street life, and public houses. Maybe that’s why we love Belgium more then France. Everybody is aware of the economical crisis. Everybody is afraid to lose his or her job. But the way people deal with this in Belgium or France is so different. Parisian cafés for instance are not mixed anymore. There are bars for the rich and the poor, for the young and the old, for the hipsters and the non-hipsters. Parisian cafés have been turned into cabinets for wax figures in which everybody plays his or her role. In Belgium people are dealing with the same problems. They are also dealing with unemployment. The big difference is that in a Belgian bar people still make jokes. And maybe that’s also the reason why we love Charlie Chaplin a little bit more then Buster Keaton. Keaton is great, but Chaplin is more political, his inspiration comes directly from the street.”
Deléphine: “And of course, in France nobody was interested in our idea. We found our producer in Belgium. Vincent Tavier, who had been working on this great satire C’est arrivée près de chez vous understood our black humour and he was willing to take a risk, and to go on an adventure, without well-known actors, without a worked-out script.”
Belinda van de Graaf
© FIPRESCI, 2004