The average film buff could name several French, German or British directors, perhaps even one or two from the Netherlands. But press any of them to come up with a single Belgian filmmaker and you might as well be speaking in Flemish.
It’s like being from everywhere and nowhere, says Jaco Van Dormael, the director of “Toto Le Heros,” who like most educated Belgians, speaks fluent French, German, Dutch and English. “I think I’m a nowhere director because in Europe they tell me, ‘Oh you’re so visual. You’re so American,’ and in America they say, ‘Oh, you’re so bizarre. You’re so European.’ I think I’m just a Belgian filmmaker. It’s a mixed country, without an identity of its own, with this strange mixing of cultures.”
Thanks to his celebrated first feature, a funny and creepy ode to a wasted life that has impressed audiences and critics worldwide, Van Dormael has, at least for now, put Belgium on the world’s filmmaking map.
At last year’s Cannes Film Festival--where “Toto Le Heros” received the Camera d’Or for best first film--police had to be called in at screenings to control over-excited overflow crowds. Two people, Van Dormael said, were rushed away in an ambulance after being crushed in the throng. Last month, the film won the Cesar, the French version of the Oscar, as best foreign film, beating “Dances With Wolves,” “Thelma & Louise,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and Woody Allen’s “Alice.”
The film has scored well at the box office in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Britain and Japan. “The only flop was in Germany. Who knows why?” Van Dormael said. It opens this month in Italy, Spain and in about 25 cities across the United States, including last Friday’s opening in Los Angeles at the Beverly Center Cineplex and Goldwyn Pavilion.
“The success has changed my life in that producing a new film is much easier,” said Van Dormael, 35, who made government-funded short films for 10 years before “Toto.” “Money is simple to get, just a few phone calls and it’s arranged. But it won’t be easier to write a good script or make a good film.”
“Toto” came from Van Dormael’s realization that somewhere between ages 20 and 25, he, like many adults, lost his “talent for living.” As children and adolescents we all entertain a multitude of possibilities of what path our life will take, Van Dormael explained. But as adults we end up with just one life, often doing something we never thought we’d ever do.
“As adults, the more we think we’re intelligent and know what life is about, the more difficult it becomes to live the life we have before us,” Van Dormael said. “Instead of living in the present, we make up stories that take the sting out of our past regrets or promise some kind of payoff in the future. But that’s not life. That’s pretending. And soon we just become whatever it is that we pretend.”
His film explores this idea through the memory of an old man, haunted by a belief that someone else has stolen his life, leaving him to muddle through an existence devoid of feeling and events. The man remembers an initially happy childhood, ruined at age 10 by a tragedy that transforms a young boy into a petrified adult, protected from further pain by his inaction and his insistence that he had been switched at birth with his boyhood rival. Even when life presents him with the chance to truly fall in love, he destroys this relationship by pretending that his adult lover is somehow a grown-up version of the one true love he lost in his childhood.
Only in the end, as the bitter man reconstructs the story of his life, does he realize the folly of his refusal to live the life he was born into. Only in his final moments does he embrace the life meant for him and finally find joy.
Throughout, Van Dormael sprinkles his film with visual whimsy as the old man fantasizes and exaggerates to invent a life story from the void that was his real life.
“This is how life is and it’s a style that I like,” Van Dormael said. “To speak about things that are not really funny with humor is for me essential because without humor I would probably never speak about them. If it’s too sad or too serious, I would otherwise just avoid it. It’s too depressing and I don’t want to be depressed.”
The affable and self-effacing Van Dormael still lives in the same working-class Brussels neighborhood, adjacent to the city’s bustling red-light district, with his girlfriend of eight years and their two daughters, ages 4 and 1. And he has no intention of moving into a bigger house or starting up a collection of fancy automobiles or designer suits, even as the big players in Hollywood come courting.
“I have some money now, but I don’t spend it,” said Van Dormael, who for many years fed his family with prize money he won from his short films. “I don’t want to change too quickly, because then I will lose myself. I have the feeling that the film never comes from me, but it comes through me from the place I am living, the friends I spend time with, the people I’m living with, the things that I see. If I’m just spaced out with the fame and the fancy money, then I can’t do anything.”
“Toto” was 10 years in the making as Van Dormael rewrote the script at least eight times. In 1985, two Belgian producers read a version of the script, and over the next five years they raised about $3.5 million, a huge amount for a Belgian production, all in public money from Belgium, the European Community and state television in France and Germany.
Before “Toto,” Van Dormael performed as a clown to finance a year studying cinematography in Paris and four years at the Higher Institute for Theater and Cinema Arts in Brussels. After school, Van Dormael made about 10 short films, with funds from Belgian state cultural authorities, covering just about every film genre--from comedy to tragedy to musicals to documentaries to hybrids of them all. His 1981 “Maedli la Breche” won a student Academy Award as best foreign film.
Belgium, Van Dormael said, has no real film industry like France or Britain. Instead, the film community is a family of artisans dependent mostly upon state funding. The Belgian government finances about five films in French and another five films in Flemish each year. Maybe one film every three or four years actually screens in theaters outside Belgium, Van Dormael said.
“You don’t make films in Belgium with the intention of becoming a star, and so every film made is made because people have to make it. And it’s impossible to do it, but they find a way to do it. And that makes for very interesting films because theirs is an urgent need to make the picture, and you can see that up on the screen.”
Now that he has bucked the odds and become Belgium’s biggest star, Van Dormael is receiving a quick Hollywood education courtesy of the Creative Artists Agency, which represents him. In town for three days recently to promote “Toto,” he was booked two of those days solid with meetings with producers and studio executives about future projects for which the agency would receive a percentage.
Van Dormael said he is curious about Hollywood and would not be averse to making a film here, but after six months of reading Hollywood scripts, he said he has yet to find one worth doing. He admits wariness of the big studio process that often includes widespread interference in the creative process by studio executives and research on test audiences to determine the most viable beginning, middle or end. What Van Dormael, a sort of bohemian film purist, likes best, he said, is writing, and he is likely to return home to Brussels to continue writing a comedy road movie about two mentally handicapped young men.
“It’s interesting because here you have this huge industry and there is a need to make films to make the industry run,” Van Dormael said. “But the director has a special function because he doesn’t have an industry to make run. His job is to make sure that he only makes films that are indispensable, films that have something important to say. If the cinema is making more and more (garbage) because the directors are not defending that fact, then we are lying to ourselves and to our audience.”