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‘Alleluia’ Director Fabrice Du Welz on Finding the Empathy in Psychological Horror

'Alleluia' Director Fabrice Du Welz on Finding the Empathy in Psychological Horror

READ MORE: Review: The Bizarro Narrative Of ‘Alleluia’ Works Best Late At Night

Fabrice Du Welz may not be a name you instantly recognize, but based on the artistic vision and terror he conjures up in “Alleluia,” it’s one you ought to start getting familiar with. Inspired by the “Lonely Hearts Killers” of the 1970s, the fourth feature from the Belgian writer-director follows an isolated woman, Gloria (Lola Dueñas), whose severe desire for a professional hustler (Laurent Lucas) leads her to help in his vicious acts of murder. The story may sound like an urban legend you’ve seen before, but Du Welz’s execution of the material certainly isn’t. Exploring the mindset of his protagonist by visulizing her unraveling psyche in his aesthetics, Du Welz replaces cheap thrills with a more experimental and calculated sense of escalating torture. As a result, “Alleluia” seems more at home in the horror atmosphere of the 1970s than it does in today’s genre marketplace, something that’s no doubt intentional once you get to know the 42-year-old filmmaker. 

Falling in love with the 1970s horror scene.

Chatting with Indiewire over the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s currently editing his next film, Du Welz cites 1970s horror as the filmmaking scene that made him obsessed with the medium. Growing up in a Catholic boarding school for 10 years, he spent his weekends with VHS tapes his mother allowed him to rent, quickly gaining a love for Italian exploitation films, blaxploitation movies and, most of all, the horror genre. “It was the visuals that attracted me to horror,” he said, “even the ones just on the poster, or the jacket as we say in France. The art was very tremendously attractive — all the dreamlike pictures and designs of women and men and blood. I was quite fascinated by what I found to be wild and edgy.”

But it wasn’t until his first viewing of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” that the idea of making movies himself first sparked. “I was quite young, and suddenly that brutality became real in a very strange way,” he said. “It was a completely different experience to me. From that starting point, I was so obsessed with the idea of making movies myself and providing that similar physical and mental experience to other people, other viewers.” More importantly, “Texas Chain Saw” provided a chain reaction. Once Du Welz connected the dots between the slasher film and its true-life subject, Ed Gein, the floodgates were opened and in came Alfred Hitchcock, whose “Psycho” also used Gein as inspiration. “Vertigo” and a host of directors from Luis Buñuel to David Cronenberg followed, and as Du Welz puts it, “I evolved and discovered a huge world of cinematographers and directors…These were the first experiences where I realized film could be and have a personal vision.”

The empathy of “Alleluia” saved him from a directorial crisis.

The birth of his inner cinephile led Du Welz to theatre school at the Conservatory of Dramatic Art of Liege and film school at the Institut Supérieur des Arts in Brussels. By the age of 25 he was making his own short films, and come 2004 he was ready to undertake full-length feature films. The resulting projects — 2004 debut “Calvaire” and 2008’s “Vinyan” — revealed an affinity for dark psychological subject matter, and they earned Du Welz a spot at some of the industry’s most prestigious film festivals, including Cannes and Toronto. While he was certainly on a promising trajectory, his next project, “Colt 45,” brought his career to a screeching halt. “It almost ruined me,” he said, referring to the film’s tumultuous production in which budget requests were declined and a hostile relationship between him and his actors created a “toxic environment.” “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue making movies. I needed to be cleansed after that,” he concluded.

Fortunately, “Alleluia” ended up being the rebirth he was looking for. “The characters are monsters, but you have to be able to relate to them because we all have the same issues at the end of the day — the struggles of loving and being loved in return,” he said of being drawn to the project. “Of course the film depicts a very extreme form of love, but you can connect it to so many different themes — jealousy, infidelity, when you miss someone. So they are monsters, but the fact they behave just like kids without any sense of morality is quite fascinating to me.”

The movie also gave Du Welz the opportunity to get closer to his lead character than he had ever gone before, something that forced him to be “more creative” and “more focused” as a director. “I wanted to be very close to Gloria and her feelings and her passions towards that guy,” he said. “I wanted to feel the empathy for the character, which sort of was the challenge. In ‘Calvaire’ and ‘Vinyan,’ I was much more distant towards my characters. I refused any empathy. Sometimes that was problematic, and some people had mentioned that to me after they saw those films. For ‘Alleluia,’ I wanted to be in her head, to feel the stream of her thoughts and the energy of her consciousness. I wanted to smell her, and to smell her physical involvement to this man. I wanted to make a very organic and visceral movie.”

Casting Lola Dueñas and sustaining magical realism was imperative.

The final product unquestionably capitalizes on Du Welz’s goals. Much of that has to do with the fearless performance by Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas, who manifests a desire that is both horrifying and emotionally devastating. Casting the part was easy, as Dueñas had a “chaotic fever about her,” as the director puts it, but hiring a Spanish actress in a French-Belgium role came with its own set of challenges. “They told me it was career suicide,” Du Welz said, “but I had to do it. Lola is never how you want her to be. She’s surprising, which is important for stepping into a role like this.” 

Dueñas’ performance is matched by Du Welz’s accomplished work behind the camera, which brings the viewer into Gloria’s torturous state of mind through editing, lighting and jittery camera movements. “It was very important to put those characters in a very moody environment and dream-like world. It’s not reality, but it’s not completely surreal,” he said. “It’s sort of this magical realism. It’s that border between the two. So many great movies in France in the 50s and 60s always worked in that magical realism.”

“I don’t know why we have realism everywhere. It’s like you have to be realistic because if you’re not they cannot believe you,” he continued. “I’m obsessed with only one thing, and that’s portraits of the characters I create. I want to tell a story, of course, but I really want to touch these characters and bring you into their souls. That’s why I’m so pleased with the moment where she [sings to the camera while standing over the corpse of her first victim], because it’s a pure, suspended moment. You don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s working in a way that transfixes. That suspended time brings you to another step in her emotional story in a way that is emotionally realistic but maybe not physically realistic.”

Genre dissatisfaction and moving on. 

The ambiguous space between the character’s reality and increasingly violent mind is where Du Welz plants the viewer, which gives his film a singular tone that is more horrifying than any of today’s domestic horror releases. No wonder the director isn’t too enamored with being labeled a “horror director.” “It’s really condescending to say that, especially in Europe when you call someone a ‘genre filmmaker.’ I’m a filmmaker, that’s it,” he said. “Today I’m a little bit bored by horror. It’s a genre I feel that’s dying in some ways — it’s not very interesting to me. It’s childish and offensive. It’s not genius stuff. It’s always the same tricks, so it’s not really as creative or inventive as it was in the 1970s or the 1980s. There is no substance to the films or political vision to them — just scares.”

In the hands of Du Welz, “Alleluia” constantly challenges the norms of the genre to provide a visceral experience that feels disturbingly unfamiliar. It should be these same sensibilities that shake up the “revenge-thriller” the director is currently editing. Titled “Message from the King,” the film centers on a new Los Angeles implant seeking revenge for his disappeared sister. Sporting two heavyweight producers — Stephen Cornwell (“A Most Wanted Man”) and David Lancaster (“Whiplash,” “Nightcrawler”) — and a cast that includes Chadwick Boseman, Alfred Molina, Luke Evans and Teresa Palmer, the project should be his most accessible one yet for as far as domestic audiences are concerned.

Although Du Welz admits it’s a “more commercial movie” than “Alleluia,” he assures it will still have the his personal edge thanks to the “freedom” his producers allowed him on set, including the approval of shooting on film (“I hate that kind of image that looks clean that we have now,” he says of digital. “The goal is to provide that grain, like something out of an old John Waters movie, where you can feel the sweat and the smell of everything”). With plans to have the film ready in time for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, it couldn’t be a better time to get familiar with Du Welz and his psychological sensibilities.

Just don’t watch “Alleluia” alone.

“Alleluia” is currently playing in select theaters and available on iTunes and On Demand. 

READ MORE: Watch: Love and Horror Are a Perfect Match in Exclusive Trailer for ‘Alleluia’

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