Thursday, 1 December 2011

Un Soir, Un Train - ANDRE DELVAUX -Director

Released 1968

And now a trip to the complex patch of European mud called Belgium.

In Andre Delvaux's film, the opening shots of the frozen, misty Flemish landscape symbolically reflect the distancing bond between Yves Montand's linguistics professor and his stage-director partner Anouk Aimee. The doom-filled love song played over the titles makes this impression explicit but the surreal turn of the narrative gives the film a unique depth that reveals a great deal more. If you can imagine what a collaboration between Bergman and Tarkovsky might have looked like, well this is it.

Aimee's portrayal of Anne reveals an independent woman, marooned in an alien culture, drifting iceberg-like from Montand's Mathias. Through flashback we gain insight into their relationship beginning with a fable-like first encounter at Christmas Mass in Spain, their two lost souls magically connecting before an open fire. Then through a chilly detour in London, a scruffy pack of kids by the Rotherhithe quayside, puncture an afternoon, emphasising the absence of children in their life. By late summer they wrap themselves round each other in a fatalistic show of tenderness, with one eye on a farmer malevolently chopping wood on the horizon. The scene acting as a literal and metaphorical preparation for the cold days ahead.

In their flat they dine in oppressive silence sipping wine over oysters. Rejecting Matthias' plans for a romantic afternoon Anne finds herself rejected when the offer to accompany him to a University in the Flemish north is dismissed as linguistically in-sensitive due to her French mother tongue. Yves Montand in the midst of a compelling run of mid-career acting performances, stands passively aloof to Anne's isolation, failing to grasp how close he is to losing her. When Anne unexpectedly appears in his train carriage they exchange words and a smile, teetering on the edge of reconciliation, teetering on the edge of an abyss.

Like a maverick travelogue director, Delvaux connects artistic portrayals of his culture, to the different phases of the film. Here the gloomy pastoral imagery of Breughal is evoked by the wintery flat-lands flashing by the train windows. Outside a stark church organ in homage to Cesar Franck, accompanies the wind whipping the ploughed fields. And before long the film unexpectedly lurches into the subconscious dream world of the 20th Century Belgian surrealist masters.

Awaking from sleep Matthias finds Anne gone, the train at a standstill and the passengers asleep. Leaving the train in the company of an older colleague and a former pupil, the men suddenly find themselves stranded on the tracks as the train abruptly pulls away. With a rational resolve to find a telephone they wander across the landscape, finally huddling round a fire as the night closes in. Then finding a deserted town they search for human life and food.

Here the director evokes the world of his namesake Paul Delvaux. In his canvasses Delvaux obssesses about empty nocturnal train stations shining in moonlight and archaic vistas decorated with owl-eyed alabaster nudes. In all his paintings there is a feeling of people and time waiting portentously for things to happen. The mood extends to the three strangers as they wander through the illuminated empty terraced streets. Finding a cinema they sit impassively through a bizarre and disturbing film depicting floating bodies suspended in mid air. Then gaining directions from a man speaking in an alien tongue, they find their way to a busy back-street hotel restaurant. Here they encounter the enigmatic Moira.

The film lends itself to multiple interpretations due to its multi-layered symbolism and a direction which gives the most innocuous scenes added significance. The Belgian setting in itself is a master-stroke, exploiting the Director's conservative and culturally divided homeland with the underlying tension forever threatening the bourgeois status quo. It is interesting to note that the student protests over linguistic dominance that we see rumbling in the background, were also captured in the contemporary James Coburn thriller "Hard Contract". At the same time the films of Harry Kumel were similarly exposing the eeriness found in the Flemish landscape with both "Daughters of Darkness" and "Malpertuis" turning this corner of northern Europe into a cerebral landscape of lonely terror and dread.
Andre Delvaux

In this period Delvaux would produce another mysterious meditation on human relations, releasing "Rendez-vous a Bray" in 1971 with Mathieu Carriere and Anna Karina. Set during the First World War the film appears to centre around two friends divided by conflict, women and ambition. Though lacking the fantasy element of its predecessor the film maintains a similar mood of unfathomable mystery.

At the beginning of  "Un Soir, Un Train" Matthias promises his mother that he will lay chrysanthemums on the grave of his father. En route to his life-changing train journey he wanders around the cemetery in search of the grave. Finally in despair he places the flowers on an empty plot and makes a hasty retreat. It's a scene straight out of the repertoire of Belgian singer Jacques Brel, a poet divided by both love and hate for his homeland. In his songs Brel drifts between the good intention to do good and the corresponding bitterness and despair found in failure. I leave you with Brel's "J'Arrive" and the symbolic chrysanthemums of his own imagined memorial. I trust Delvaux would approve of the connection:


  1. I saw the film, it is very good, the dream remember to me "Calvaire", directed by Fabrice du Welz, other belgian director.

    I like a lot your critique:)

    1. Thanks Francesco.
      Yes you are right about the scene in "Calvaire". There really is something about those Belgians! I recommend the films of Harry Kumel is you want more.