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“Robbery with mutual consent”

Interview with Jan Decorte

(1) Witlod Gombrowicz: voorvallen, avonturen (Jan Decorte, 1977)

Dirk Lauwaert: You’ve just played me a Puccini piece sung by Callas. What do you like best, the audience or the play itself? Yesterday, you were sitting behind the audience during a run-through of Scènes uit het landleven,1 and I wondered: are you looking at us or at your theatre piece? Do you think audiences are beautiful?

Jan Decorte: Usually I do, but that joy used to be more original and easier to summon than it is now. The problem is that you’re never talking about an audience, but always about that audience in that performance. And in film, for example, you’re too often disappointed by what the audience yields. In large theatres, the disappointment is bigger. So I prefer to be alone in a room with ten or fifteen people that I can, indeed, watch. With Cymbeline, for example, that was a great pleasure.

What is the right attitude of an audience?

I don’t think there’s a specific pose that covers it, but it’s true that you would expect a certain liveliness, vivacity from an audience. But you hardly find that anymore, certainly not when working in larger contexts. Thus good audiences are very, very rare. I like talking to the audience, but there are very few people who say anything remotely of concern or interest to you. There’s usually a complete refusal of what they see (which is perhaps also a pose), or the kind of conglomeration of fabrications and intellectualisms that is supposed to be about the work, but has in fact nothing to do with it. Discussions with critics invariably founder on the fact that I seem to be utterly incomprehensible to them, as they are to me. So I don’t really have anything in common with those people. 

There are some very gripping moments in Hedda Gabler. The scene by the fireplace, for example, which is extremely long and very beautifully composed and in which something phenomenal happens. It just grows and grows. When did you realize how beautiful it was?

Before filming it. The film is made around that moment. Its extravagance is due to the fact that it was only shot once and that it has the exact length of one film reel. And that I absolutely didn’t want to do it a second time, and that there was only one manuscript for one attempt. All of which means that it turned into a tremendously successful moment. In some miraculous way, it all seems to have come together, with that chimney beginning to hiss and draw at exactly the right time. Thinking about it, I figured one certainly shouldn’t film a scene more than once, at the risk of having to throw it away. I don’t see why one would film an image more than once. 

And that was the scene around which you had built the entire film?

Yes, it was one of the decisive décor elements, what a fireplace looked like. You see a woman who, out of sheer boredom, burns up a man’s life, neither more nor less, and that’s what both the play and the film are about. It’s a very beautiful moment. I filmed it with sheets of paper on which I had tried to write a piece of the screenplay by hand, a piece that ended up being very bad. I also always lived with the fear that if I wrote something, it would disappear, or go missing, or be burnt, or that someone would just throw it away.

Manuscripts are important for you, both in your films and in your theatre work. The fact that you lose them of course, but also that you display them. The rustling of the sheets of paper in Hedda Gabler is very beautiful. And when those documents reappear: how did you manage to fold them so intricately?

I would have to see that again, I never noticed. I think I just took one of those files of mine, copied some stuff and sacrificed other stuff. The loose sheets of paper filling such files are always the most disparate, of course. And then we had this folder in which we put those sheets of paper. That’s how it all came together, but I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence. It generates itself and the rest. I very much like those moments. If I wanted to recreate it right now, I would fail. 

Most of the film is just one take. Did you sometimes have to redo things?

Film is quite technical. The same goes for theatre. I think technique should be shut out of the process as much as possible. So I absolutely don’t believe in... how shall I put it? There’re certain kinds of warm techniques and a lot of cold techniques, which you should remove from your subject as much as possible.

What is a warm technique?

Warm techniques are techniques that you understand and are able to understand. I mean: I can handle all kinds of small lamps very well, but if you give me a theatre spotlight it will be an absolute disaster. I don’t think it serves a purpose either, really. Cold techniques grow out of considerations that only have to do with technical questions, not with what you want to do and how you want to do it. And that’s the disaster in theatres: they’re equipped for a certain type of theatre, and if you come in with our kind of décors or lighting, it looks lousy. Yet our lighting is a thousand times better than that of any classical production. I know that kind of work, but I refuse to do it because I find it naive and incredibly medieval. A piece with 189 different lighting positions doesn’t impress me in the slightest. And those who do something else don’t seem to exist. You’re saddled with a bunch of blinkered specialists who only want to see their name in the credits next to the item they’re responsible for and who really want that item to be terribly well executed. I just think that an image is what it is and that it should be considered for what it is. Around here, there’s such a reluctance on the side of the spectators to read their own perception. That’s one of the big problems. 

Yesterday you spoke of “lightness”. What is that to you? “It is what it is”?

Yet, without assigning it the weight of a trompe-l’oeil. In our case, it’s a partition, unless it should be leaned on, which would of course introduce a functional aspect. In our case, a partition is an aluminium frame with a cloth stretched over it which is then covered with paper that can be painted very easily, is fairly sturdy and has a very nice texture. Hockney’s décors and costumes, for instance, are reduced to a bare minimum. It’s all incredibly light, airy, and modern, with its own kind of actuality. Paper dresses, little cloths hanging from cables, you name it. Really simple things. But simplicity leads to the biggest misunderstandings, because it always ends up with a general public that no longer appreciates that simplicity, however popular it once was. Take the films of Dreyer or Griffith for example, no matter how monumental they were, their facture and construction are incredibly simple. When you end up with an audience of, say, intellectuals, people who feel able, that simplicity is apparently not enough. Instead of looking at those films on a primary level, they are “read inwardly”, and that is a big problem. 

That “reading-inwardly” has to do with a trompe-l'oeil space, but also with depth of meaning.

It has to be simple and superficial. Sometimes people can’t face how simple it really is. The problem with theatre is that the labour of learning a text, of exploring a situation, of understanding a décor should be separated from the interpretation of those things, because that interpretation is incredibly simple. That’s how we did Der Auftrag, without for a moment wondering whether we would learn the text or not. We read it aloud. The idea of depth is very 19th century. To think that another world is hidden behind a person – it’s very Freudian too – and behind a face, and to cherish the illusion that you could or should get to know it. That is obviously nonsense. Human beings are what they seem, and that’s the end of it. That’s all you’ll ever know anyway.

It also has to do with at what level you are moved and your ability to be moved. When are you moved?

When an actor makes me look at what they do, I think. When they are themselves to such an extent that they still let the situation through, take pleasure in showing it, and then add that personal detail, a thing with their foot or nose that makes known the distance between who they’re playing and who they are. I actually think I’m easily moved. It’s much more enjoyable to watch theatre than to make theatre, and it is much more enjoyable to make films than to watch a film, because film is a much more evolved medium when it comes to the material you are interpreting. Imagine to simply steal someone’s face, their appearance, capturing it at the angle you’re most attracted to, where it moves you, and to try to piece together all that you’ve stolen afterwards during the editing; that you can then fabricate something very moving. It’s robbery with mutual consent, of course, but I think that’s one of the great things about film: to be able to make your own gaze visible. That’s hardly ever possible in theatre, because in theatre everything always goes wrong.

Stealing with mutual consent, you said, but something still escapes those in front of the camera, doesn’t it? 

Yes, but that’s their job, to be watched, and it’s much more obvious in film than in theatre. In theatre, there’s always someone who’s struggling with themselves. That’s not the case in film; film is much lighter work. That is to say, in film, the duration is merely technical. You hardly have time to rehearse a scene, you give a few pointers, you position the people the way you want to see them, you have them say what you want them to say, you add a touch or two, but it’s never the deciding factor. It’s never really processed; it’s very superficial. It’s done, you look at it, and if it aligns with your way of looking then it’s fine; if not, you let them repeat it.

The Dutch you use in your films is beautiful. It never gets in the way. It may have something to do with the following image: all your texts sound as if they are speech balloons in a comic. As if the texts are something entirely different, not coming from the image, from the characters, but are almost like an object. The way they would pick up an iron or flick on a table lamp, that’s how the texts are expressed.

I think it has to do with the way I treat the texts and with the way the film is thought out and made. Hedda Gabler’s intention is quite literary. In Pierre, it’s slightly different. But there’s definitely something to what you’ve said in Gombrowicz. The way I treat language is entirely literary. They are two completely separate things. I first edit the text and then I deal with the image. But indeed, they are two different corpuses, two different languages placed alongside each other, and that’s probably how meaning is produced. Because each language is clearly defined in itself. It’s very important not to mix the two. The moment you integrate language and image, or speech and image, you come to a very artificial kind of realism. As in all Flemish films. If you’re under the illusion that you’re working with real people, one aspect of whom is visual and the other sound, you’re terrible deluded and you’ll never manage to communicate this delusion to the public. It always has to do with fiction, but the fiction has to be clear in its terms. It can be a fiction of any kind, of any texture, but fiction in any case. The way Gombrowicz, the film about his work, plays on a very clear contrast between what the evoked fiction is precisely – visible – and how it is described. The difference in tension is huge. On the one hand, you have realism, formalized in such a way that it gets a structure. On the other hand, you have the description. It’s always the same tension between idiomatic literature and its visible aspect. But the two never ever touch, because that would mean you constantly think that someone is talking about themselves, which is hardly ever the case. 

(2) Hedda Gabler (Jan Decorte, 1978)

What is fiction to you? Is it important?

No, everything is fiction to me. That is, as soon as you produce an image of something, it’s fiction. At worst, it’s telling stories.

Why “at worst”?

Because storytelling has been used and abused so often that it has become a cliché. That’s why I only really want to make fragments and pieces and chunks of a reality that can’t be grasped or spanned with whatever theory or form or style or effort anyway. Fiction means looking through a window and thinking about what you see, always looking.

Already in Hedda Gabler I had the impression you were sitting in the background snorting with laughter over the story that was being told. 

Yes, it’s a laughable story. I now recognize the same in Chekhov too: the story is really ridiculous, but the language in which it’s translated, for example, is very funny, very suitable, very readable. It says a lot about the people who speak the language, and the way you get to know those people is also very fascinating. You catch a glimpse of them and they’re off again. But whether that professor wants to sell the estate... They’re not Vlaamse Filmkens [a popular series of short children’s books in Flemish], of course, but that kind of storytelling is the first thing I remove. I always read that I have removed the “drama”, but I don’t agree. The drama of these people is that they look the way they are, and talk the way they talk about the things they say. That is their true drama, and that is what I want to describe. You can do that with images, but not with language. I think language is nonsense. I only find it useful in non-fictional things. I never read novels. If I want to read stories, I read comics because they serve me at the level I want to be served at. I don’t need stories about people anyway. I can look and build my own story. The mechanics and dramaturgy of such pieces go out the window. You see, everything is said once, and those who didn’t understand didn’t pay enough attention, but it’s not that important. To watch how people behave, and to draw your own conclusions from that, that’s important. 

Sometimes I have the impression that moments are stretched to such an extent that they almost acquire a musical quality, become an aria, a moment that is not carried by the story, but by and for itself.

The burning of the manuscript in Hedda Gabler is an aria, no doubt. In that, I am musical – in an increasingly conscious way. My problem is: I have become very aware of my musicality and pictorial sensitivity, but I cannot read a single note of music and I cannot draw. But what you say does indeed strike me; it is undeniably so that it’s structured like an opera. There are unimportant passages that are quickly wrapped up because they bore the audience – no one’s waiting for them. Then there’s the aria, the pleasure of an aria, of singing, of understanding music, of a text. I’ve seen a documentary about Callas – about that famous concert of hers – and there you see that this woman understands everything she sings. It’s as simple as that. That’ll be it: arias stand on their own, unstretched by fiction. They are always moments that everyone else finds terribly unimportant, so I’ve noticed. And they are indeed stretched and made, in all of its implications. Moments in the story do not interest me. 

You’re saying that Callas understands what she’s singing. Doesn’t your being moved have to do with seeing an actor who understands something?

Ah yes, of course, it’s crucial. And then there is that little extra. It’s a personal kind of understanding, you see, and that’s very important. The longer I work this way, the more I understand that human intellectuality is terribly overrated. You can explain a hundred times to an actor what they’re doing, but if they’re unable to embody it, there’s no real understanding. That’s a very difficult step to take for most actors, to get over their own intellectuality.

Do you like to rewatch Nature morte and Pierre?

It’s really hard for me. The viewing experience is coloured by all kinds of incidents and reactions so that there’s hardly any room for an experience of my own. The possibility dissolved, disintegrated. But now that there’s some interest in them, perhaps the time has come to rewatch those films. But I would never do that again in public. It’s unbelievable, the things you experience in a film theatre, in terms of reactions, when you’ve just made an incredibly simple film that says what you want to say. You’re apparently causing terrible harm if you do your work as well as possible in a personal way. And I can understand that. That’s probably where our commitment lies and that which keeps us going. But you have an entire cultural history against you, which is a very strange feeling. We’re experiencing a culture of impersonality. At a certain point, this culture passed into the hands of a bourgeoisie that had money, that wanted something in return, that wanted to see its own cultural affinity monumentalized in every expression they were paying for. Which is why there’s such a fixed codex of what you can and cannot do. 

But you really do have an entire cultural history against you every time you do something. A moving person is a live target, a target of a culture that is motivated only by immobility and that thrives on it, even though that motive no longer exists. Because the time of beautiful bourgeois culture – pompous art, take Jugendstil, for example, as the absolute refinement of pomposity – no longer exists. It’s a fiction to want to do such operas, because the quality needed no longer exists. And the public no longer has the naivety needed either. The idea that three painted canvases form a beautiful castle is no longer viable. You have to go to a tremendous amount of trouble to make the public believe anything. It doesn’t work like it used to anymore. You can’t fixate yourself on that kind of immobility. But as a result, you’re in a very strange place, on the fringes, without wanting to be there. Because in principle only iconoclasts belong on the fringes, people who are against something; but I am not against anything. You’re forced into the margins, you take that role far too seriously, developing an aggressiveness that makes no sense and has nothing to do with the work itself. Ours is a time when personal ways of processing things are apparently violently opposed to the codex, while that violence isn’t intentional at all. 

Do you like photographs?

If I take them myself, I usually do. Especially Polaroids, and only of certain people. You look into a camera and everything else disappears; that’s the true joy of photography. You steal what you want from reality, and all else vanishes. But wanting to look, in itself, is also a dying art. I know very few people who are able to observe something closely. I started out doing black-and-white photographs. When I was preparing Pierre, I made a lot of location photos and noticed that I really liked looking into the lens and that you could actually do something with the photos. You should never look at what you’ve photographed, for example, but rather look at the edges. It’s hardly ever done in family and tourist photos. They are centred, whereas I hardly ever put a figure in the middle of the frame. Everything that is pushed to the edges gives a fleeting, momentaneous impression, as if you’ve captured it just before it left the image. That’s why it’s much more exciting. That’s why there’s hardly ever anything in the centre of my décors.

In Hedda Gabler, I noticed that the off-screen space is never used. Even the gazes directed outward, outside the frame, are not gazes evoking an outside. The gazes rather tend to land on the edge of the image. 

Yes, I did that on purpose, because the image obviously speaks for itself. So I don’t see any reality outside the image, that’s abstract. Anything else would be naive.

There is something painful about that. It’s so reassuring to know that there’s something outside as well.

But of course, you isolate an action in order to show it, and that’s usually painful, as with everything you isolate.

Time and again, I formalize the contact with objects, people, characters or texts. I need that. I mean – if I threw myself into the mess of facts and bodies, I would never get out alive. That’s not how I deal with myself either, otherwise I’d be in some artists’ bar sobbing. You need a certain formality, tightness. For example, I can’t stand people with bad manners. Why? Because good manners are incredibly practical in your contact with the outside world. If someone really gets on your nerves, you just sit there and be friendly. That’s what you can do, so what else would you do? Crawl at their feet, tear their hair out? That wouldn’t do. It’s out of your hands. Just let it go and always cough politely when it’s over. It’s very simple. It’s like washing yourself in the morning. The moments that other people call intimate and that don’t strike me as intimate because they always happen in the same way, those moments are the most fruitful to me, the moments when I really think. Routines are very safe. And people don’t recognize you, you’re unknown, which is good, something to hold onto. That’s one of my problems with actors nowadays. The moment you’re known, you can’t do anything anymore. It’s not that you’ve lost your grip on people, but you no longer have anything to say to them. A human being is a limited number of things, surrounded by an unlimited number of things – hence the fear I suppose. But that limited number of things is finite. A person’s capacities are finite, and the only thing that helps is to keep on working and to try to push out frontiers.

When I think of you, of Chantal [Akerman], of Eric [de Kuyper], there is one sentence that really “propels” me, namely the admiration because something is happening, because there are people who are doing something.

Yes, I also consider that the most amazing thing about myself. There was a time when I was no longer able to do anything. That made me better understand my dilemma: that you’re faced with your own laziness, you don’t know what you’re going to do, and you reconcile yourself to it with alarming ease. You look for all kinds of excuses. But still, there seems to be something... You see, at my age, it’s not enthusiasm, but rather a kind of satisfaction. Which is the pleasant thing about my age, much more pleasant than breathlessly chasing your own ambitions. To Belgian standards, I have had all there is to offer, just like Chantal and Eric. So that’s not why we’re doing it. But there’s that need to make images. The most beautiful thing about the whole Chekhov décor, I think, is the left and right side of the front wall. The amazing thing is how it cuts through the space. Then the carpet is ten centimetres closer by and the image becomes smaller and more perspectival, evenly lit by neon lights. In some way, you have to create those images. It’s not that you have something to say, it’s that you want to show something. Photos are the purest version of this idea: you cut out something in order to show it, even if it is to yourself. To show something brings great enjoyment. Problems arise because that enjoyment – which is a very privileged kind of enjoyment, as is the enjoyment of looking – is so impoverished and supposedly democratized. While democratization should mean that anyone who wants to do it can do it, not that everyone should want to do it, that would be ridiculous. At this point I think you can only do something from exceptional situations. People call it “producing”, but actually it is “making” or “showing”.

How would you describe what you do?

I can’t name it right off the bat, but it boils downs to a personal approach to people. That doesn’t really have anything to do with auteur cinema, which is about something but is actually about the auteur. I make my images as good as possible. They are related to my personal aesthetic, but they are about the people in them, not about me. I definitely don’t want to be known as an auteur. I prefer to keep it all under wraps. I prefer that people just think about what they’ve seen.

(3) Pierre (Jan Decorte, 1977)

  • 1. The theatre play that is here called Scènes uit het landleven [Scenes from Country Life] was Decorte’s version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. After a more traditional run-through of the play, it was reinvented and reappeared as the radically different Scènes/Sprookjes [Scenes/Fairytales].

This interview originally appeared in Belgian Minimal Cinema, published by Kultuurraad der Leuvense Studenten / ’t Stuc in 1983.

With thanks to Bart Meuleman.


Image (1) from Witlod Gombrowicz: voorvallen, avonturen (Jan Decorte, 1977)

Image (2) from Hedda Gabler (Jan Decorte, 1978)

Image (3) from Pierre (Jan Decorte, 1977)


This text is published in the context of the online première of Hedda Gabler (1978), Pierre (1977) and Witlod Gombrowicz: voorvallen, avonturen (1977) by Jan Decorte, tonight at 19:30 on Avila. You can find more information on the event here.