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A beautiful article on Charlie and Hannah's Grand Night Out!

Belgian director Bert Scholiers employs all kinds of cinematographic devices in his playful feature-film debut. References range from silent film to horror and from Woody Allen to Max Ophüls.

An exceptionally bizarre film. Charlie en Hannah gaan uit (Charlie and Hannah’s Grand Night Out) by Belgian talent Bert Scholiers is scattered all over the place, both in terms of plot and style. This surreal romantic comedy about wandering twenty-somethings was presented as a work-in-progress at CineMart 2014. Four years later the finished product screened during IFFR 2018. Scholiers plays with form, inventive visual gags, colour and black-and-white, changing screen formats and references to silent cinema and classic Italian horror – like a Woody Allen or Noam Baumbach on acid.

The film’s first line is: “I had to wait on the platform of Rotterdam Central Station.” “Fantastic, no?”

Why Rotterdam Central Station? “Some stories in the film – but not the most shocking ones – are based on real experiences the actors told me about. I promised not to reveal which ones, but I’ll just say the part about Rotterdam is pretty much based on true events.”

You probably reckoned: if I start with Rotterdam, my film will be selected for IFFR. “Ha ha, maybe I did! This festival is amazing. I’m really a big fan. Its liveliness, its programme – it’s really one of the best festivals in Europe. In the world, I should say!”

You don’t encounter this type of film too often in Dutch cinema. “But still, I would argue the film fits the Dutch context better than the Flemish.”

Explain. “I was inspired by those Anglo-American, witty chit-chat films, like the ones by Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) is one of the best films I’ve seen in the past years. The dialogues blew me away. And then there’s Whit Stillman and the entire American tradition of the twenties, with Dorothy Parker and George Kaufman, those Broadway shows about people who express themselves in such sharp and cosmopolitan ways. Anyway, perhaps it’s a cliché, but I feel like that type of cosmopolitan witty talk and cultural sophistication is characteristic of cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam. You don’t see it as much in Belgium. We’re more humble.”

In your film, it seems like anything goes. Is that true? “In the back of our mind we had the idea that each fantasy sequences should flow from the minds of the two main characters. Charlie has strange tastes, enjoys decadent literature and cheesy films; that’s why she ended up in the giallo scene. Hannah is more of a cliché and a romantic, so she’s the one floating through the universe on a polar bear.”

So there was a method in madness? “Yes. While writing, we tried to never let the fantastical scenes get in the way of emotions or dialogues.”

The stages in the fantasy sequences seem hand-made. “We wanted to go back to the methods of the silent film. Hence the use of mock-ups and hand-built decors. But the fact that the North Pole, the universe and the forest were all created in a studio is quite insane. We didn’t have the budget for it, and yet it happened. The stage crew, Liza Shevchuk and Samuel Van Broekhoven, had such incredible passion that they pretty much worked themselves to death.”

The brothel scene looks like a somewhat disintegrated black-and-white film. Was it based on something specific? “I’m obsessed by director Max Ophüls. He made Le plaisir (1952), a film about a brothel. Everybody should see it. He loves those long, sweeping, elegant camera movements. My introduction shot, in which you follow a character through the brothel, is completely stolen from him. He’s a master when it comes to those types of shots. Kubrick has also stated his indebtedness to Ophüls. And my composer Chrisnanne Wiegel used a theme from Le plaisir, a kind of eighteenth or nineteenth-century melody. I find that fantastic.”

Chrisnanne Wiegel is a Dutch composer. What was it like to work with him? “Chrisnanne Wiegel is like the Dutch Hans Zimmer. He has worked on nearly all blockbusters: Alles is liefde, Komt een vrouw bij de dokter, Nova Zembla, Het schnitzelparadijs… an incredible list of films. We’ve been friends for years. He was so enthusiastic about my project that he agreed to work with me for a third of his regular price. Apart from the music by Strauss and Haydn and two pieces by Vincent van Warmerdam, Chrisnanne did everything: the old jazz, the giallo music – almost better than the original. The piano music in the brothel also includes original compositions by Chrisnanne, next to Scott Joplin and the theme I mentioned earlier.”

Lots of genres coming together. “Yes, and that’s something he’s never been able to do before. The artistic input of a composer in films like Komt een vrouw bij de dokter is limited. In those films, the music is there for support. In this film, he was allowed to go wild. The collaboration was so good, we’re thinking of making a musical. A real, old-fashioned musical like Singin’ in the Rain, but in a context that’s harder and more sexual. A bit of Jacques Demy, a bit of La La Land, but with a touch of rawness.”

Charlie en Hannah gaan uit saw its Dutch premiere at IFFR 2018 and will screen in Dutch theatres from 7 June 2018 onwards. It’s also the opening film of the four-day Belgian Film Festival in the Louis Hartlooper Complex, Utrecht.

Kees Dressen

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