Mar 25, 2015
Rather unfortunately for me and other people that cannot stand frog-speak, Belgian filmmakers tend to film there works in French instead of Flemish Dutch because it makes the works much more commercially viable, yet master auteur André Delvaux dared to shoot his masterful first feature De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen (1966) aka The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short in the goofy Lowland Germanic language and the film ironically not only turned out to be the most commercially and critically successful film of the auteur filmmaker’s career, but also more or less singlehandedly put modern cinema from the culturally schizophrenic Lowland nation on the international map. Sadly, Delvaux would only shoot one more film, Een Vrouw Tussen Hond en Wolf (1979) aka Woman in a Twilight Garden, in Flemish, though some of his other works were partly shot in the Dutch, including the auteur filmmaker’s second feature and arguable magnum opus Un soir, un train (1968) aka One Night... a Train aka De trein der traagheid. A French-Belgian co-production featuring two relatively big French-language stars, including Italian-born leading man Yves Montand (Le salaire de la peur aka The Wages of Fear, Manon des sources aka Manon of the Spring) and exotic Fellini graduate Anouk Aimée (La Dolce Vita, 8 ½), Delvaux’s ominously oneiric second feature ultimately managed to receive frog commercial support because his debut The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short was so critically and commercially successful in France, with La Nouvelle Vague gatekeeper Jean-Luc Godard even giving the work great praise. Ironically, despite receiving French commercial support and featuring two big name international film stars, One Night... a Train failed to receive Belgian ministerial support like the director's previous film for seemingly absurd linguistic reasons that also happen to be a major theme of the film. Indeed, conflicts between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons in terms of linguistic turmoil and rivalry reached such a volatile level the same year that Delvaux’s film was released that the Belgian government actually managed to collapse. In One Night... a Train, a titular locomotive containing Belgians of various cultural backgrounds crashes and causes a ‘Danse Macabre’ in what is indubitably an allegory for a culturally schizophrenic nation on the verge of catastrophe where everyone, despite language or culture, burns in the end because, as the film demonstrates, there is nothing more universal than death. Centering around a reluctantly nationalistic and pathetically pedantic Flemish professor played by Montand whose once-seemingly-magical romance with his regrettably French theater director lover played by Aimée is beginning to wither away due to both political and personal reasons that largely have to do with the male protagonist's lack of real principles and seeming incapacity for embracing happiness, Delvaux’s second masterpiece is all the more forebodingly surreal as his first masterpiece The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (which, incidentally, was also based on a work by Flemish magical realist writer Johan Daisne, though the first half of One Night... a Train was written entirely by Delvaux), as a sort of strangely narcotizing nightmare and ‘magical realist’ fever dream that is most certainly the closest thing to a European arthouse Carnival of Souls (1962), albeit more immaculately tragic, not to mention aberrantly allegorical.
A feverishly forlorn odyssey of figurative lost souls that become literal lost souls, One Night... a Train begins normally enough with middle-aged Flemish protagonist Mathias Bremen (Yves Montand) being bitched out by his exceedingly elderly and frail mother, who annoyingly complains “I never forgot about that” because he refused to go to the movies with her when he was ten years old because he didn’t like the hat she was wearing. Of course, Mathias' mother's seemingly irrelevant remark reveals a great deal about the protagonist's personality, as he is a curious man who, like many intellectuals, concerns himself with the more petty things in life while failing to be able to see the bigger picture. Mathias' mother also complains that he does not have children and then makes him promise that he will lay chrysanths on his beloved father’s grave, but by the end of the film, not only will the protagonist fail put the flowers on his dead daddy's resting place because he is unable to find it, but it also becomes clear that he will never have children, at least not with his French ladylove Anne (Anouk Aimée). Mathias and Anne are total opposites as especially demonstrated by the fact that the former is a sort of pedantic softcore nihilist with no real strong principles or beliefs and the latter believes in god and is full of passion for life and love, hence her recent decided disillusionment with her relationship with the protagonist. At the beginning of the film after meeting with his mother, Mathias—a linguistics professor who lectures in French—heads to his classroom to teach, only to learn that only a handful of students, mostly negroes and Asians, have attended class that day, as the Flemish majority has decided to strike. A minute or so after beginning his lecture, an attractive female student comes into the classroom to tell Mathias that the Flemish teachers and students are leading a strike and that classes are cancelled, so the protagonist ends class by stating to his students, “I’m very sorry. I’m astonished to see so few here! It looks like your Flemish colleagues are on strike this afternoon. I understand their reactions against the ecclesiastical authorities in this affair, but I am more concerned about their position regarding their francophone colleagues. Otherwise I support them wholeheartedly. Well, I am most happy to discuss linguistic matters. Gentlemen, till next time!”
When a fellow professor comes up to Mathias after he cancels class and recommends that they both show support to the protesting Flemish students by joining a demonstration, the protagonist displays his glaring cowardice by self-righteously declaring, “Is it solidarity, to persecute a minority? Apartheid, racism, wait, doesn’t that remind you of something?,” thus revealing that he is certainly no Flemish chauvinist, but a loner of sorts that never joins sides, though it is more because he is a passive fellow with no heart and not because he is some sort of virtuous individualist. Due to his influence as a professor, Mathias has managed to get his lover a job as a theater director via his friend Werner (Domien De Gruyter), so he decides to visit both of them while they are working. After leaving the university, Mathias goes to see Anne while she is working on rehearsals for a production of the 15th-century morality play Elckerlijc aka Elckerlyc aka Everyman by Flemish playwright Peter van Diest that the protagonist has specially adapted for her. Despite discussing his adaptation of Everyman for months with Mathias, Anne does not like his version because, as the protagonist states later in the film, “She thought that it was not enough to be conscious and lucid when confronted by Death.” Indeed, Death is one of the characters in the play and is described by Werner’s friend as being, “… neither Dracula nor Nosferatu, but a disquieting figure,” while the eponymous Everyman is depicted as stronger than both Death and God, which Anne rightfully thinks is patently absurd. While the Death character in the play version physically resembles a cross between Dracula and Nosferatu, both Mathias and Anne will later confront a real and literal ‘Death’ and it is certainly no vampiric fellow that looks like Anton LaVey sans goatee, thus revealing that the latter was certainly right when she complained to the protagonist that it was not enough to be conscious and lucid when confronted with it.
After leaving the rehearsal for Everyman, Mathias and Anne go home together and eat an extravagant meal at their cultivated, if somewhat bourgeois, apartment which is adorned with classical Greek and surrealist statues, as well as various foreshadowing images of ‘Death,’ but while the protagonist is deeply immersed in eating his oysters and drinking his wine, his lover seems quite melancholy and plagued by something that has long been on her mind. When Anne says that she thinks the most “beautiful” and “admirable” line from Everyman is, “The Angels spreads its wings and says, ‘I pluck the soul out from the body. Its substance is pure and light. I bear it skyward into the blue, there where we will all be reunited,’” and asks her clearly apathetic lover why he does not like it, Mathias disheartens her by tastelessly replying, “Angels have no sex.” Of course, Mathias does not believe in angels and has no problem mocking Anne’s superstitious beliefs, which she does not take lightly as demonstrated by the fact that she denies his overt sexual advances after he mocks her. Mathias is leaving for a trip to meet up with some “old nationalist” buddies at a Flemish university in the north and he does not want Anne to come because of her alien frog tongue and culture, even stating to her while on a bus ride, “You know how they react down there. Old school nationalists, closed minds. I can’t even introduce you.” Needless to say, Anne is not happy with the fact that the man who she loves most seems ashamed of her and her rather unfortunate heritage, so she starts a fight with him, even proposing they break up, stating, “It would be to the detriment of your career for us to be closely linked. I can’t be your French wife, because it’s immoral not to be Flemish.” Indeed, Anne defensively proclaims that she is “not an object” and “I feel so lonely in your land…I know nothing and nobody…No friends, no child.” Mathias attempts to comfort Anne after she claims that one day he will leave her and disappear, but she ultimately decides to act irrationally and run away, so he is forced to visit his father’s grave by himself. When Mathias arrives at the graveyard, he fails to locate his father’s grave, so he just gives up after searching for only a couple minutes, drops the flowers in a random place on the ground, and gets on a train so that he will not be late for meeting up with his old friends that evening as he planned.
While on the train, Mathias is quite delighted when Anne randomly shows up, so he smiles at her and she warmly smirks back. While Anne apologizes for her somewhat hysterical behavior and blames it on being “under strain,” Mathias replies, “You know, probably it’s going to last forever this evening. You shouldn’t wait for me at the station” and she agrees to take the next train back home. While on the train, Mathias becomes sleepy and begins recollecting past events from his relationship with Anne, including a melancholic trip to London that reminded both of them of the fact that they have no kids and probably never will, but also happier and more romantic moments like when they once kissed in a wooded area near a Bruegel-esque farm. As Mathias begins falling asleep, a montage appears that inter-splices images of a disastrous train wreck with shots of the protagonist warmly embracing his lover. When Mathias finally wakes up from his spontaneous slumber, he is startled to discover that Anne has disappeared and is nowhere to be found on the train. Although both Mathias and the viewer do not know it yet, the protagonist is no longer in reality. Indeed, aside from the last couple minutes of the film, the second half of One Night... a Train is set in an otherworldly dream realm where nothing is as it seems and the only thing that makes sense is no sense. On his temporary odyssey in a sort of nightmarish purgatory that is slightly more like hell than heaven, Mathias will meet up with two very different men of two very different ages that he knew at different points in his life and all three fellows will soon discover that they are trapped in an absurdist anti-Arcadia where people act like autistic somnambulists and speak insufferable gibberish.
While looking for Anne on the train, Mathias bumps into a retired history teacher of religion from Tubingen named Gotfried Hernhutter (Hector Camerlynck) that he used to know, though the old man does not at all remember him and seems offended by the fact that the protagonist recognizes that he used to be a professor, as if it shames the old man to be reminded of the fact that he spent his entire life reading and grading papers. While Mathias and Gotfried are talking, the train stops and a handsome young man with blond hair and a Nordic physique in his early 20s named Val (François Beukelaers) standing outside begins talking to them, so the two get out and speak with him, but when they do the locomotive suddenly begins moving again and ultimately leaves them behind. Just like Hernhutter does not remember him, Mathias fails to remember Val when the friendly young man informs him that he took a college course with him two years before. Stranded in the middle of nowhere after treading through mud, the three men, who are unquestionably symbolic of the three major stages of adulthood (early adulthood, middle-age, and old age), decide to start a fire at night to cook some potatoes since they are hungry and naturally they begin going into detail about their private lives, especially Mathias, who has a lot to be concerned about since he is on the brink of losing his great love. Of course, Mathias discusses his trouble with Anne to the two men and his fear that she might leave him for good if he does not get back to the train station in time. After bragging that she is a “real woman” who has given him the “best years” of his life, Mathias describes how he was introduced to Anne several years ago around Christmas by some actor friends at a Catholic church on the Spanish border. When Val decides to go look for some help, Hernhutter warns him to be safe, to which the young man replies in a fashion that reveals one of the major philosophical themes of the film, “Everything that happens is foreordained. There is no risk.” While Val is away, Hernhutter rather perturbs Mathias by confessing to him, “My ancestors, the Hernhutters, were Protestants from Bohemia...very attached to the doctrines of Jan Hus. They never mourned because for them death was the occasion for great hope. The Hernhutter clan have a grand mausoleum in the commune garden. I have never done wrong to anyone, and when I visit that garden I feel less alone.” Luckily for Hernhutter, he will be permanently ‘relocating’ to the garden very soon.
After what seems like only a couple minutes or so, Val comes back and lets Mathias and Hernhutter know that he has located a nearby town, but when the three arrive there they find what amounts to an angst-inducing The Twilight Zone-esque ghost town where the only evidence of the presence of life comes in the rather annoying form of an incessantly ringing alarm. Eventually, the noticeably disturbed yet equally intrigued threesome happens upon a dilapidated movie theater from virtual hell, which they enter and soon discover mostly elderly and foreign nonwhite people watching a terribly disturbing film featuring a skydiver falling through the sky juxtaposed with a sort of exceedingly unnerving ambient noise. When the film abruptly stops with no ending or credits sequence, the audience members nonsensically jump out of their seats in a spastic fashion and start a mini-riot-cum-brawl of sorts among one another as if they have rabies and are collectively high on a killer cocktail of crack, PCP, and cheap vodka. Upon leaving the theater, Mathias attempts to ask an Arab-like audience member for directions to a hotel but he does not understand him as he speaks some sort of gibberish language (apparently, the actual language used is Farsi). Ultimately, Mathias and his two new buddies end up at a bizarre ancient two-floor bar that one might expect to see in an old school Hollywood western that is inhabited by mostly elderly people that also speak gibberish. When Mathias becomes agitated and loudly asks them in broken English, “What this place?,” every single person at the bar stares at him and his friends in an intimidating straight-faced fashion that clearly disturbs the protagonist and his two buds. Without even asking, a young male waiter serves Mathias and his two friends glasses of red wine and eventually an exotic chicken dinner that they do not have to pay money for. While they are eating and getting drunk, Mathias more or less reveals himself to be a nihilist without any ideals after explaining how he was initially proud to join the resistance at the conclusion of the Second World War, but eventually he stopped believing in the cause after he was involved in arresting female collaborators and imprisoning them in abandoned lions cages at the zoo since the local prison was closed. After telling his story about his short-lived association with the resistance, Mathias goes on to explain to Hernhutter and Val that his lover Anne began believing in god during the same war because she skipped school on the very same day that every single one of her classmates were killed after a bomb was dropped on their cafeteria.
While they are hanging out at the bar, Val's youthful sex-drive kicks in and he becomes hopelessly obsessed with a super sexy and seductive, if not seemingly sinister, young statuesque blonde barmaid and against Mathias and Hernhutter’s advice, he goes up to her and she ultimately puts him in a sort of incredibly intense demonic trance and eventually gets him to follow her lead in a truly devilish dance set to evil yet undeniably hypnotic discordant music. In what amounts to both a literal and figurative ‘Danse Macabre’ aka ‘Dance of Death’—an allegory on the universality of death—every single person in the bar, both young and old, immediately stops what they are doing and begin dancing with Val and the bodacious blonde barmaid. Naturally, this strange display disturbs Mathias, so he goes up to Val and tries to stop him, but he merely ignores what he says and replies like a lobotomized madman in regard to his sinisterly sensual dancer partner, “Her name is Moira…And I understand her language. It’s a miracle!” When Mathias complains that he still does not know why the train stopped and left them, Val confidently replies, “I’ll explain it to you, Mathias,” but he ultimately never gets the chance. When a whistle randomly blows and the music stops, every single person stops dancing and leaves the bar in a hasty fashion as if they are under some sort of oppressive curfew, with Mathias and devilish diva Moira (played by Romanian actress Adriana Bogdan, who later played the eponymous role in André Delvaux’s Belle (1973)) being the sole two people left in the bar. Of course, against his better judgement, petrified Mathias walks up to menacing Moira and before he knows it, he is fainting on the strange woman, who attempts to reassure him by stating, “It’s nothing, you are not injured.” When Mathias regains his consciousness, he realizes that he is no longer at a bar in some strange otherworldly town, but at the site of a tragic train crash. Indeed, Mathias was in a dream realm but now he is stuck in a real-life living nightmare and naturally he immediately begins looking for his beloved Anne and soon notices that some of the paramedics and firefighters at the scene of the accident were some of the same people in the dream bar. After walking around in an exceedingly forlorn fashion while passing the inflamed wreckage, Mathias wanders into a sort of shed and finds three corpses covered with blankets lying on the ground, with two of the bodies obviously being Hernhutter and Val as indicated by the shoes they are wearing. When Mathias lifts the blanket off of the third corpse, he finds Anne, breaks down, and caresses her cold pale dead body. Obviously, it is now too late for Mathias to get his priorities straight and fix things with Anne, thus the protagonist might as well be dead like his lover, Hernhutter, and Val.
Although few pretentious limp-wristed cinephiles would be willing to admit it, One Night... a Train is unequivocally a horror flick and an exceedingly eerie, esoteric, and darkly erotic one at that that does not follow in the tradition of classic tales like Frankenstein and Dracula, but instead belongs to one much older and all the more morbid and morose. Indeed, as blatantly highlighted near the conclusion of the film during the waywardly ‘infernal’ dance scene, Delvaux’s devilishly delectable masterpiece is certainly a rare cinematic work that closely follows in the late-medieval allegorical artistic genre of the ‘Danse Macabre,’ which emphasizes the universality of death and was designed to remind people of the fragility of morality and how vain the earthly glories of life are. Indeed, protagonist Mathias certainly learns this harsh lesson in the end as he spent his life caring about such petty things like his Flemish nationalist friends' opinions regarding his French lover, only to lose said lover before he could discover the error of his ways and reconcile with her. More importantly, to the longstanding chagrin and resentment of his much suffering lover, the protagonist spent his life caring about frivolous things instead of doing the things that, for most people, make life worth living, like getting married, having kids, starting a family, and, in turn, creating a genetic and cultural legacy. While the film arguably carries various pessimistic messages, including allusions to the decidedly deleterious and culturally corrosive nature of so-called ‘multiculturalism’ (indeed, I don't think it is coincidence that most of the people in the nightmarish movie theater scene are either Arabs or elderly, thus reflecting the changing demographics of Belgium), I think One Night... a Train ultimately carries at least one positive cautionary message about the need for one to live life to the fullest and to put one’s life in perspective so as to not let unimportant and arbitrary things get in the way of a great love and/or destiny. Of course, it is no coincidence that the protagonist of Delvaux’s film is a professor—a man that teaches instead of does and talks instead of creates—as he absolutely personifies the pedantic pussy who may be the most sophisticated linguist in town, but ultimately lacks the most rudimentary elements of common sense and cannot see the voluptuous human treasure that stands constantly before his eyes, as intellect oftentimes comes at the price of unhappiness and incapacitation. Indubitably, One Night... a Train is more relevant today than when it was released nearly half a century ago, as the protagonist absolutely personifies the archetypical contemporary Western European as a decadent, passive, nihilistic, unprincipled, deracinated, gluttonous, and overly sophisticated pansy who has no desire to get married, have children, and carry on the legacy that his ancestors bequeathed to him, hence why he is too lazy to even look for his father's grave and instead symbolically tosses the flowers in the dirt.
German auteur Hans-Jürgen Syberberg geared his filmmaking career towards following in Richard Wagner’s footsteps by attempting to create the ultimate celluloid ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (or ‘total work of art’), but I think André Delvaux came closer to this artistic ideal as One Night... a Train is a work that seamlessly weaves elements of film, theater, literature, poetry, music, painting, and even the culinary arts (the film features a number of exquisite food scenes) in a cinematic ‘Danse Macabre’ with a stark Symbolist flair that manages to reconcile the works of Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (whose 1562 painting The Triumph of Death arguably features the greatest portrayal of the ‘Dance of Death’ ever dreamed up by an artist) with the surrealist nocturnal erotica of the director’s Walloon namesake Paul Delvaux. Cinematically speaking, Delvaux’s work will either interest or bewilder fans of cinematic works as diverse as Walter Forde’s The Ghost Train (1941) adaptation, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil (1973) aka Dead People, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob's Ladder (1990), and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), among various others, but of course One Night... a Train is a work that is innately superior to every single one of these films. Interestingly but not surprisingly considering the deep cultural roots that most Belgian filmmakers seem to have in comparison to their European counterparts, Walloon auteur Fabrice Du Welz would pay tribute to Delvaux’s film with the bizarre bar sequence in his brutal yet beauteous quasi-arthouse horror flick Calvaire (2004) aka The Ordeal. With all the films I see, I rarely come across a work that I would describe as an unquestionable masterpiece, but One Night... a Train is the real decidedly delectable celluloid deal as a work that is as romantic as it is cynical, eccentric as it is true to life, dark as it is sensitive, fiercely fatalistic as it is wonderfully fantastique, and beauteous as it is bleak. Indeed, the film is just another one of the various examples of why Delvaux is one of the most criminally underrated filmmakers of all time.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 5:00 PM
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