Jaco Van Dormael: “Making a film is like throwing a bottle into the sea. Maybe someone finds it somewhere”

Jaco Van Dormael (b. 1957) is a very accomplished and versatile Belgian screenwriter and filmmaker with a handful of personal, artistic and highly engrossing films to his credit. During the past three decades, he established himself as one of world cinema’s most original auteurs. His stunning and absorbing debut film “Toto le héros” (1991) earned him the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a César (category, Best Foreign Film), and, among others, a BAFTA nomination (Best Foreign Language Film). His next feature, “Le huitième jour” (1996, a.k.a. “The Eighth Day”), was another triumph in Cannes as both leading actors, Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne, were bestowed the Best Actor awards.

In his third film, “Mr. Nobody” (2009), a brilliant drama with a very original concept and his first feature shot in English, he cast established international actors, including Jared Leto, who later won an Academy Award for his performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), actress Diane Kruger who had just starred in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2008), and also Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley. In 2006—three years before she appeared in “Mr. Nobody”—the latter wrote and directed “Away from Her” when she was only twenty-seven. That film received two Oscar nominations for her screenplay and for Julie Christie, a screen goddess in the 1960s, who gave a tour-de-force performance as the Alzheimer’s-stricken wife.

Finally, with “Le tout nouveau testament” (2015, a.k.a. “The Brand New Testament”)—a lightweight satire with still a fair amount of depth, and nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language Film—Mr. Van Dormael reunited actors Benoît Poelvoorde and Catherine Deneuve, a year after they appeared together in “3 coeurs” (a.k.a. “Three Hearts”). Mr. Van Dormael gave an unequivocal answer to the question whether God exists or not. God does exist, and he lives in Brussels, according to the tagline of the film. The film was gloriously big-hearted, philosophical and coherent—all trademarks of Mr. Van Dormael’s oeuvre. What else do they have in common? They’re all captivating and enriching, and his storytelling is exquisite. Voilà.

When he’s writing or directing his own films, he may be working on other projects that don’t make headlines, such as his latest contribution to the film “Isolation” (2021), a documentary in which five European directors share their vision on the Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. Besides Mr. Jaco Van Dormael, French-Swedish director Olivier Guerpillon, Michele Placido (Italy), Julia von Heinz (Germany), and Michael Winterbottom (England) are also associated with this feature. In September 2021, the film won the Premio per l’Inclusione Edipo Re (Giornate degli Autori) at the Venice Film Festival.

“Isolation” was recently screened at the Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) where I sat down with Mr. Van Dormael to talk about his work as a filmmaker.

September 2021, at the Venice Film Festival. Group interview with four film directors who talk about “Isolation”: from left to right, Jaco Van Dormael, Julia von Heinz, Michael Winterbottom, Olivier Guerpillon. Michele Placido was not present.

Mr. Van Dormael, you are a very well-known actor’s director. But for “Isolation” you’ve done something completely different. You didn’t work with actors because now you directed images. How did you do that?

It was a very different approach. [Co-producer] Joseph Rouschop suggested I’d shoot a short film; four other directors did the same, but no one knew what the others were doing. The main goal was to find out what was going on during the Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown—a very strange period—and he wanted five different angles from five different places in Europe. The first thing that came to mind was to use stills and make a film like Chris Marker’s “La jetée” [1962], using with today’s possibilities. He took the pictures and filmed them; now we can go a step further. I chose the death of my wife Michèle-Anne De Mey’s father as the subject. Shortly before the lockdown, we gave him an iPad at the nursing home where he resided, and that was the only way to see him every day. He then got infected with Covid, and we could no longer visit him. We eventually had to say goodbye via the iPad, and later the coffin on a parking lot—hence the title “Le deuil au temps du corona” [a.k.a. “Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus”]. During the lockdown, we all had restrictions and couldn’t move around, so the use of photographs in the short—with the editing and the music—reflects the feelings of the intimate humanity of his loss when Michèle-Anne was no longer allowed to visit him.

Where did you make the movie?

At home, with Michèle-Anne, and we used two cameras. My daughter Juliette Van Dormael and Gaspard Pauwels, Michèle-Anne’s son, each handled a camera. So we had two cameras, a little bit of light, and with my grandson in my arms, while I was also eating something, it became un tournage photographique that we could finish in about four or five days. Then Bruno Tracq edited everything, and he found a way to give these fixed images some kind of movement. Because that is what cinema is all about: you have 24 images per second that you set in motion. So at a time when we all had to stay at home, we made this short with family and friends which was very easy. We didn’t have to request any permissions or anything. We wouldn’t have gotten them anyway, since everyone had to stay at home.

You’ve never told a story like that before. Was it an easy assignment?

That’s right, this was new to me. But because of Covid, Chris Marker’s idea was a very interesting angle. And the editing was very important; Bruno had worked out over ten different versions, so we had many options, and we could see which one was the best to get our message across. Loup Mormont then did the musical score and that went very smoothly. I’ve known him and am familiar with his music. So we had a very small crew, I’ve never made such a small-scale film before.

“Isolation” (2021, Swedish trailer)

Is there a project you had been working on that you had to put on hold because of Covid?

I’ve been working on a new screenplay for several years now, but because of Covid I was less inspired to write, so I worked in the garden, I cooked, and I wrote a bit; I shot this short film and made another film with the KVS, “Bovary” [2021], also shot in five days. But during the lockdown and Covid, I had a hard time finding inspiration and keeping on writing. When you go out, you meet people, you talk to them and exchange ideas, and all of that was gone. Everything was locked down. It must have been a very difficult period for a lot of people. This short is about one person, one human life, and is a tribute to Michèle-Anne’s father. But it must be terrible to die all alone, and it’s terrible for the families when they can’t see their relatives, or can’t hold their hand, or can’t even say goodbye. He was there alone, and the only people he saw were wearing plastic face shields and masks.

Was it a difficult project because you were emotionally involved?

It was an obvious project; the scene where Michèle-Anne cries was very tough. But she’s a dancer, so you quickly tend to emphasize movement rather than emotions.

If you look at the movies now playing in theaters, like the Marvel movies and the summer blockbusters, is there still room for “Isolation”?

I don’t think so [laughs]. Today is the premiere of the film, but it is also its final screening. It will air on Be TV though, and next year on RTBF, I think. The riskier films are not released theatrically that easily, and films that aren’t blockbusters are often shown in theaters for only one week. That’s by far not enough to cover the costs of your film. Sometimes they say ‘final week’ for a film that just opened. So you get one week because other films are about to be be released right away. That makes it very challenging; you work on a film for years, the shooting takes a few months, and then you only get a week to show your film.

Michèle-Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael attending the Brussels International Film Festival | Film Talk

But your films always find their audience pretty easily, also internationally, even when they are not blockbusters. How do you do that?

I have no idea. I’m fortunate, I guess, because I don’t even know who my audience is and I never know what to expect. That is why I make my films for myself and for some friends who are on the same page as I am. You have to set the bar high enough and work like a perfectionist. But ‘my’ audience? I have no idea who those people are. And if you don’t know that, you can’t try to achieve success because you don’t know how to go about it. But I’ve been lucky with my movies up until now. Making a film is like throwing a bottle into the sea. Maybe someone finds it somewhere. Sometimes that happens quickly, but it can also take years. Le temps ne respecte que ce tu as fais avec lui. My movies are all important to me; I have made them, I love them, even if they are far from perfect. With my first film, “Toto le héros” [1991], I was told it was way too difficult, but it worked. “Mr. Nobody” [2009] was also a difficult sell but appealed to a young and cinephile audience. But financially, it was a failure, and they even told me it would be my last film. For me, it was very successful, but not commercially. The best thing you can do is be the producer of your films—I already did that back then—so that you are in control of the finances. After all, as a director, you are only as good as the box office of your last film; that determines whether or not you can make another film. “Mr. Nobody” got off to a very slow start and became a cult film about five years later, thanks to a young audience of sixteen or seventeen-year-olds.

“Mr. Nobody” (2009, trailer)

Is there a file rouge in your work?

L’étrange expérience d’être en vie, by living on a planet that revolves around the sun and you don’t know why. I make movies about life that doesn’t really have a story, but I do need a story to tell it. In “Toto le héros,” the main character had the impression that he is not alive until he meets someone who can turn that whole process around, while “Mr. Nobody” gives the main character a wide range of possibilities to let his life evolve in many different directions. And all those directions are interesting, because each life has its own happiness and sorrow, with death at the end. But the ability to feel, to feel life, that’s essential.

Who or what gave you those insights to tell such stories, and create your characters the way you do?

For me, it goes back to the first movies I saw. When I was about fourteen, I saw “Rachel, Rachel” [1968], directed by Paul Newman, about an adult woman who still lives with her mother, and the scenes with the child helped me a lot when i did “Toto le héros.” “Amarcord” [1973] by Federico Fellini, with all its small stories, also taught me a lot about how you can portray life with all its pain and sorrow. Those are two movies that have been very special to me. There are not many people who still remember “Rachel, Rachel” now; you probably have a lot of gray hair if you remember that film [laughs]. But some things stick with me; after “Toto le héros,” there was an elderly Japanese film critic who asked me, ‘You must have seen that one movie—and he mentioned the Japanese title of a movie I didn’t know—about those two babies who were switched at birth?’ I said to him, ‘Ah, that’s interesting, but I haven’t seen it. When was that movie made?’ ‘In 1917.’ Now we’re talking about “Rachel, Rachel” and he was talking about a movie from 1917. Even though movies tend to be forgotten after a while, there are always people who remember them or directors who learned something from them. Without “Rachel, Rachel” or Fellini or Andrei Tarkovsky, I wouldn’t make my films the way they are. I never understood Tarkovsky’s films, but they move me time and time again and I don’t know why. They always blow me away.

“Toto le héros” (1991, with English subtitles)

Your first films were noticed instantly and won several major international awards. And now, three decades later, you’re still at the top. Is it difficult to stay there?

I don’t work at a top-level. I live and work in Belgium, a very small country; it’s child’s play, you know. Je suis le cinéast le plus connu de ma rue; some cinephiles know me, but in the end, I have achieved nothing. It’s important to me to enjoy the work I do; the pleasure of making a movie is the only salary you can be sure about. But I don’t know what people see in my movies. Sometimes they say to me, ‘I saw your film and thought it was great!’ That makes me happy, of course, but I don’t know what they have seen in it. After all, I cannot compare myself to them: I am not the most valuable viewer of my films, because I know them by heart long before they are finished. Moreover, a film is only what the viewer thinks is important. People often say that a film is made three times: first there is the screenplay, then the shooting, and finally the editing. But the fourth time is never mentioned, and that is the most important one: what does the viewer do with what he has seen? Which scenes will he forget, which ones will he remember, which scenes are important to him?

Don’t you think you underestimate yourself?

No, I am very proud of myself [laughs]. To be honest, I think I make good films, but I am very lucky and always take my time. I always only work on one film at a time, until it’s finished. I always work on only one screenplay, never on two or more screenplays at the same time. So I never work on several films at the same time. When I write a screenplay, I get up in the morning, think about the story, the characters, the dialogues, write for a few hours, and then I start thinking about everything again. Consciously and unconsciously I’m always on it, and when I feel I’m on the right track, I can’t explain why I feel that way. You can compare it to being in love: you can’t explain why you’re in love, you just know. And when I’m really engrossed in my work, I can’t explain why that is either. I can’t analyze it, I can only sense it. And that is very important to me; I often work with editor Hervé de Luze, and he not only masters the technique of his craft but after three months on the same set, he also feels the essence of the film. And that’s what making a movie is all about.

Over the years, you have worked with several first-rate actors. Can you tell something about Sarah Polley who played Elise in “Mr. Nobody”?

She’s a wonderful actress; she was my first choice to play that part and she agreed to do it right away. I remember the first time we met; I had asked her, ‘Is it easy for you to cry?’ And she said, ‘Sure, no problem! I can start and stop crying on command, whenever you want me to.’ And she did. ‘Give me ten seconds,’ she would say, ‘and I will be in character.’ And that’s really all she needed; it took her only an instant. So she started crying whenever I asked her to, and after I said, ‘Cut,’ she was having fun and was laughing with everybody.

Brussels International Film Festival,
1 juli 2022

“Le tout nouveau testament” (2015, trailer)


TOTO LE HÉROS, a.k.a. TOTO THE HERO (1991) DIR – SCR Jaco Van Dormael PROD Luciano Gloor, Dany Geys CAM Walther van den Ende ED Susana Rossberg MUS Pierre Van Dormael CAST Michel Bouquet, Jo De Backer, Thomas Godet, Gisela Uhlen, Mireille Perrier, Sandrine Blancke, Peter Böhlke, Michel Robin, Pascal Duquenne, Bouli Lanners, Josse De Pauw

SUR LA TERRE COMME AU CIEL, a.k.a. BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (1992) DIR Marion Hänsel SCR Marion Hänsel, Paul Le (story by Jaco Van Dormael, Laurette Vankeerberghen) CAM Josep M. Civit ED Susana Rossberg MUS Takashi Kako CAST Carmen Maura, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Didier Bezace, Samuel Mussen, André Delvaux, Philippe Allard, Johan Leysen

LE HUITIÈME JOUR, a.k.a. THE EIGHTH DAY (1996) DIR – SCR Jaco Van Dormael PROD Philippe Godeau CAM Walther van den Ende ED Susana Rossberg MUS Pierre Van Dormael CAST Daniel Autheuil, Pascal Duquenne, Miou-Miou, Henri Garcin, Isabelle Sadoyan, Michele Maes, Fabienne Loriaux, Alice Van Dormael, Juliette Van Dormael, Josse De Pauw, Olivier Gourmet

HOMBRES COMPLICADOS (1998) DIR Dominique Deruddere PROD Dominique Deruddere, Loret Meus SCR Dominique Deruddere, Marc Didden CAM Willy Stassen ED Ludo Troch MUS Arno CAST Josse De Pauw, Dirk Roofthooft, Hilde Van Mieghem, Gène Bervoets, François Beukelaers, Jaco Van Dormael (Opera Singer)

POURQUOI SE MARIER LE JOUR DE LA FIN DE MONDE? (2000) DIR – SCR Harry Cleven PROD Patrick Quinet, Jani Thiltges CAM C.L. Zvonock ED Matyas Veress MUS George Van Dam, André Mergenthaler CAST Frédéric Bodson, Marie-Luce Bonfanti, Yves Bourgeois, Sophia Carvalho, Jean-Henri Compère, Jaco Van Dormael, Cara Van Wersch

LA FACE CACHÉE (2007) DIR – SCR Bernard Campan PROD Jaco Van Dormael, Philippe Godeau CAM Matthieu Poirot-Delpech ED Philippe Bourgueil MUS Laurent Bertaud CAST Bernard Campan, Karin Viard, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Olivier Rabourdin, Tania Garbarski, France Bastoen

MR. NOBODY (2009) DIR Jaco Van Dormael PROD Philippe Godeau CO-PROD Jaco Van Dormael CAM Christophe Beaucarne ED Susan Shipton, Matyas Veress MUS Pierre Van Dormael CAST Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh-Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little, Toby Regbo, Juno Temple, Pascal Duquenne, Juliette Van Dormael, Jaco Van Dormael (Brazilian Man)

KISS & CRY (2011) DIR Jaco Van Dormael SCR Jaco Van Dormael, Michèle-Anne De Mey, Gregory Grosjean, Julien Lambert, Nicolas Olivier, Sylvie Olivé CAM Nicolas Olivier, Bruno Olivier CAST Michèle-Anne De Mey, Jaco Van Dormael, Gregory Grosjean, Frauke Marien, Denis Robert, Ivan Fox, Harry Cleven, Toby Regbo

TANGO LIBRE (2012) DIR Frédéric Fonteyne PROD Claude Waringo SCR Philippe Blasband, Anne Paulicevich CAM Virginie Saint-Martin ED Ewin Ryckaert CAST François Damiens, Sergi López, Jan Hammenecker, Anne Paulicevich, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Christian Kmiotek, Jaco Van Dormael (Dancer)

LE TOUT NOUVEAU TESTAMENT, a.k.a. THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015) DIR Jaco Van Dormael PROD Jaco Van Dormael, Daniel Marquet, Olivier Rausin SCR Jaco Van Dormael, Thomas Gunzig CAM Christophe Beaucarne ED Hervé de Luze MUS An Pierlé CAST Benoît Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve, François Damiens, Yolande Moerau, Pili Groyne, Laura Verlinden, Serge Larivière, Johan Heldenbergh, Johan Leysen, Dominique Abel, Alice Van Dormael, Viviane de Muynck, Pascal Duquenne, Tom Audenaert, Jaco Van Dormael (Car Driver)

COLD BLOOD (2015) DIR Jaco Van Dormael PROD Daniel Cordova, Gladys Brookfield-Hampson SCR SCR Jaco Van Dormael, Michèle-Anne De Mey, Gregory Grosjean, Thomas Gunzig, Julien Lambert, Nicolas Olivier, Sylvie Olivé CAM Julien Lambert CAST Michèle-Anne De Mey, Gregory Grosjean, Gabriella Iacono

MON ANGE, a.k.a. ANGEL (2016) DIR Harry Cleven PROD Jaco Van Dormael, Olivier Rausin, Daniel Marquet SCR Harry Cleven, Thomas Gunzig CAM Juliette Van Dormael ED Matyas Veress MUS George Alexander van Dam CAST Hannah Boudreau, Maya Dory, Fleur Geffrier, Elina Löwensohn, François Vincentelli

BOVARY (2021) DIR Jaco Van Dormael PROD  SCR Michael De Cock, Carme Portaceli (novel “Madame Bovary” [1856] by Gustave Flaubert) CAST Koen De Sutter, Maaike Neuville

ISOLATION (2021) DIR Jaco Van Dormael [segment “Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus”]; other segments by Olivier Guerpillon, Michele Placido, Julia von Heinz, Michael Winterbottom PROD Guglielmo Marchetti SCR Jaco Van Dormael [segment “Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus”]; other segments by Olivier Guerpillon, Michele Placido, Julia von Heinz, Michael Winterbottom CAM Juliette Van Dormael [segment “Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus”], James Clarke, Valentina Pascarella, John Quester ED Bruno Tracq [segment “Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus”], Philip Bergström, Frank Brummundt, Olivier Gierpillon, Jacopo Quadri, Marc Richardson MUS Loup Mormont [segment “Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus”], Luca D’Alberto, Matthias Petsche, Marta Reguera, Jay Weathers CAST Andrea Bocelli, Roberto Bolle, Michèle-Anne De Mey, Michele Placido, Rosa von Praunheim