The Body in Space
Olivier Gourmet, a Belgian actor born in 1963 and best known for his work with the Dardenne brothers, is a great actor of heft: he really gives you the sense of the weight of objects, of his body, and the mass in things. He manages to give the impression that what he touches is not a prop, but an object. This is perhaps what Peter Barkworth in his book About Acting would call the gift for ‘secondary tasks’. These are the sort of actions that don’t further the story, but often give it an unexpected freshness. Barkworth offers as examples of secondary tasks “two people are talking, but reading at the same time. Two people are talking, but washing up at the same time, or laying the table, or dressing…” Now many actors obviously do more than read their lines, but how often do the extra linguistic aspects of their performance merely serve the story? In the recent Congorama, Gourmet’s Michel constantly gives the impression of not just acting a part and moving the story along, but making his mise-en-scene, the space he utilises, physical; and yet not physical in the psychological/ narrative sense of the term. That is, not in the sense that the physicality of the performance serves so obviously the diegesis.
Thus in the first third of the film it concentrates on Gourmet trying to work through various inventions in Belgium (like a solar generated lawnmower), and then taking off to Canada after he finds he was adopted, and seeking out his natural father. In this part of the story Gourmet carries his stroke-ridden adopted father up a couple of flights of stairs at an exhibition, and later puts him to bed in moments that may remind us of the way he heaves planks of wood from one place to another in The Son, or bags of flour in Rosetta. Later we see him eat a sandwich, a beer and fries. Certainly the diegesis is very much being served here, and we’re hardly talking about the inexplicable gestures of a Brando, but we still feel these are secondary qualities rather than primary qualities. Gourmet gives to these moments not the flight of narrative but the weight, taste, and smell of things.
In the second section of the film, the movie goes into flashback after a car accident involving Gourmet and his half brother Louis, and the story gets told from Louis’ point of view. Here the actor Paul Ahmarani’s performance has a primary quality but almost no secondary dimension. Everything he does from driving a car to getting angry seems to serve the immediacy of the story over the complexity of self; whereas many of Gourmet’s gestures – whether it be balancing a bottle of beer on his forehead as he lies in a motel room, or lifts his son halfway into the air, late in the film – carry a conviction beyond the story and into the realm of the physically specific. We’re not thinking of the narrative why in relation to the action, but the physical self’s wants in an immediate sense: hunger, love, affection and thirst; secondary qualities indicating primary needs. When Ahmarani starts smashing up his father’s house, though he’s obviously had a complicated emotional bond with his father, this scene really just serves the furthering of the plot in relation to some papers he’s been searching out to prove his father is responsible for a major invention. His anger is depersonalised: almost anybody would act as he acts given the circumstances and the state of frustration. When Gourmet balances a bottle on his forehead in the motel room, he personalises the gesture. Where the primary quality generalises the gesture; the secondary quality allows one to make it one’s own. Or another way of looking at it is that the primary quality will be written into the script; the secondary qualities will often be the extra diegetic touches that can allow an actor to make a performance distinctive beyond the narrative.
In this sense Gourmet is very much a European actor, or rather an actor whose concerns chime with the dawdle of European cinema over the pace of American film. The less narrative event, the more space there will be for the actor to find his performance in the details. In the moment where Ahmarani starts to break items in his father’s house this will be either in the script – Louis searches for his father’s notebooks and, getting angry that he cannot find them, and frustrated with his father generally, starts demolishing the place – or the most obvious direction for the anger to take if the script asks for a general sense of rage and frustration. There is nothing especially fresh in the response, and so Ahmarani never finds his own voice in the part he plays. Maybe in other roles he does so; but not in this particular one, where the script either hems him in, or he plays key scenes with maximum dramatic intensity but minimum originality
Now one of the things about Gourmet is that he doesn’t have a very expressive face. With small eyes, chubby features and few lines, his facial expression is secondary to his bodily expression. In an article in Cineaste on performance in Adaptation, writer Cynthia Baron discusses the debates that have surrounded the opposition between “internal and external acting methods…that emerged in the late eighteenth century.” She quotes director Julie Taymor insisting that it is not about acting, but “about maintaining a focus on asking ‘what is it about ‘sad’ that makes the body hard or soft? What rhythm does ‘sadness’ have.’” This is contrasted with, for example, a Method approach that “if an actor was really feeling inside, all the edges were supposed to take care of themselves.” But as useful as these well-formulated examples may be, we still have the actor’s body that may have a predisposition towards a certain method. If a director were to base a performance around Gourmet’s inner expression through focusing on his face, how much texture would the performance possess? Willem Dafoe, or Jack Nicholson, or Marcello Mastroianni are actors who work as much with their face as with their body, no matter the agility of Dafoe’s physical presence, or Nicholson’s capacity to bounce or roll on his heels. They indicate great range with merely a close-up. If we look at images of Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, in Tom and Viv, and Shadow of the Vampire, for instance, we see an actor whose eyes can do much of the performance’s work. Soulful and modest in Last Temptation, wracked in Tom and Viv, and bitterly desirous in Shadow of the Vampire, all this can be extracted just from the eyes. Can Gourmet suggest such range with his whole face, let alone the rather limited windows to his soul?
This facial inexpressiveness can potentially give the film a low-key suspense – Nick James in Sight and Sound believed that in The Son, Gourmet’s character could just as readily kill as offer affection to the young boy responsible for his son’s death whom he takes on as an apprentice. But this means the film isn’t utilising Gourmet’s face for its expressive possibility, but accepting its blankness. He’s the sort of actor who expresses more through the way he’ll walk, as caught in a medium shot, than with an emotional expression on his face in close-up. This seems partly why Gourmet utilises the possibilities in objects. As he balances the bottle on his head in Congorama, this tells us much about his character’s sense of futility, of his boredom, and of his loneliness: the bottle does more ‘work’ than Gourmet’s face. We also notice it when he walks around the small Canadian town where he’s looking for his biological father, as he lugs with him his shoulder bag, and suggests the weight of his fruitless search in the very heaviness of that bag. We can invoke the internal/external argument Cynthia Baron utilises, but we would need to take it further. It is not especially the performance lived, methodically, nor the performance enacted, physically, but almost that the performance comes out of not Gourmet’s body, but the objects that surround it.
We might think here of a great scene near the end of the Dardennes’ La Promesse. Here Gourmet’s Roger claims that everything he does, he does for his son. But most of these things have been illegal, as he’s involved with smuggling immigrants into the country and putting them up in suspect accommodation. He involves his son Igor in most of his activities, but when a man dies after falling off a roof he was working on for Roger, his son wants to help the man’s wife and their baby out in as many small ways as he can without quite telling her what has happened to her husband. By the end of the film, Igor’s more attuned to the wife’s needs over his father’s wants, and at one stage as Roger gets angry with him, the son manages to attach a chain to his foot after Roger’s been knocked semi-unconscious. As Gourmet’s character becomes fully conscious again, we see him struggling to free himself from the chain whilst pleading with the boy to let him go. It seems entirely apt that Roger’s trapped whilst offering love and affection to the son; it sums up neatly the problem between the two of them throughout the film. Gourmet plays Roger as a man trapped in the world as it is and not as it could be, trapped in a mechanistic universe where signs of love seem somehow beside the point. When earlier in the film Igor calls his father dad, Roger insists he calls him by his name. There is something functional here, as though Roger does but a dad loves, and it’s the doing that matters; not the affection. Certainly Gourmet offers moments of warmth at various stages in the film: after losing his temper with Igor and beating him to the ground, he play acts with Igor and starts tickling him. In one scene in a bar Roger gets up and sings, and hugs his girlfriend, Maria. But these are moments of affection that seem to function like hiatuses in a life, moments that can never accumulate, it seems, into turning Roger into anything other than the type of person Roger is, can never turn him from ‘Roger’ into ‘dad’.
Gourmet plays the role perfectly; he understands the physicality of the character, and refuses to offer us anything that would try and explain the central aporia in the film: the absence of Igor’s mother. Whether knocking on various doors picking up the rent, jumping into the van to go from one place to another, or offering the police a few immigrants to lockup so that the politicians will be appeased that something is being done about immigration, Roger never stands still enough to think through his actions, and the moral implications on his son. This isn’t the Dardennes’ blanket dismissal of extension over thought, but they do explore in much of their work the problem of trying to get on to the detriment of one’s own ethical well-being. Thus, so often we see the characters’ labour is contained by the directors’ ethical questioning. Now this may usually be through the problem of work in late capitalism, where the work ethic becomes an oxymoron. In La Promesse, Rosetta and The Child, the notion of getting on is contained by the problem of what gets sacrificed when trying to make a buck. But sometimes the Dardennes do look at the nobility of work, and especially so in The Son, without requiring much alteration from Gourmet in terms of his performance. Here Gourmet uses the very skill he possesses in his own life (when not acting he practises carpentry), and makes it central to his character’s emotional heft. As he takes on as an apprentice the young boy responsible for his son’s death, Gourmet’s character keeps most of his thoughts to himself and lets the work do the talking.
This is an internalised performance through external action. But it is external action not as symptomatic, as neurotic signs revealing the inner being, as we might find in a Method performance. Nor is it symptomatic of boredom, restlessness, loneliness or insecurity as we find in Congorama. It is a performance based chiefly on the immediacy of the task to hand. This might not be new: how often have we seen a performance hemmed in by the activity practised? Emmanuelle Beart and Daniel Auteuil in Un Coeur en Hiver for example, where they both play musicians who allow much of their emotional intensity to sublimate itself in performance, or Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, where De Niro trained to such a standard that by all accounts he would have made a very efficient middle-weight boxer? In each instance the performance remains contained by the quality of the task. But in The Son, Gourmet pushes further than most into the physicality of the performance. In Un Coeur en Hiver and Raging Bull, we still feel that the performance comes out of the problem of expression in relation to the professional activity. The musicians offer their emotions restrictively, La Motta violently: their emotions come out of their professional identity. This doesn’t seem to be the case in The Son, where the emotions and the profession are not interconnected, but quite separate. It is as if the Dardennes don’t want Gourmet to play an emotionally repressed carpenter, but they want him simply to play a carpenter who happens to have an emotional loss at the centre of his life. Certainly he gets extremely angry with the boy late in the film, but this is not because of carpentry and tragedy, the way we can say La Motta is primally violent in and out of the ring, he just so happens to be a carpenter who wants the young boy to understand the enormity of his deed. Once that is understood, the work continues, though contained, perhaps, through an understanding that the work is bigger than those who happen to be doing it. Though the underlying aspect of Gourmet’s character in The Son and in La Promesse are very different – in one film a father who loses his son semi-adopts the young man who killed him; in La Promesse a father half ignores his son’s emotional needs for financial wants – the performances needn’t be. Both parts require an actor who can focus on the physicality of effort, and the Dardennes film their theme around that physicality.
Are we not in danger of contradicting ourselves however? Earlier we proposed that in Congorama Gourmet finds all sorts of ways to make the performance his own. Now we seem to be suggesting that Gourmet’s character comes out of chiefly the theme and narrative surrounding Gourmet’s character. Maybe we can square the circle by saying that Gourmet is not an actor who seems to be searching out his character’s motivation, if we think of motivation as that which underpins and drives the story, but instead an actor making sense of the immediacy of his environment. He appears to be an actor who is more interested in the mise-en-scene than in his character’s end goals, so each gesture has the immediacy of place over the abstraction of narrative. It isn’t Gourmet’s job to lift a piece of wood as a grieving father, but to lift a piece of wood as a carpenter doing his work. In Congorama, when Gourmet lays the bottle on his forehead in his motel room, it is the boredom generated out of the mise-en-scene, out of the small Canadian town he happens to be in, and the dull, purposeless motel he stays in, that brings forth the gesture more than anything else. It is not a ‘deep’ gesture of crisis, but a ‘light’ gesture of immediate futility. This doesn’t of course mean the gesture contains nothing more within it, but it is the immediacy of place that brings out the gesture, where, for example, with his brother’s rage attack it feels much more narratively superimposed and psychologically underpinned.
Now obviously Gourmet’s work consists of more than his films with the Dardennes and his appearance in Congorama, even if he does happen to spend much time between projects working on carpentry. After attending the Cours Florent in Paris he appeared in numerous plays by Moliere, Turgenev, Seneca and others, and he’s been in numerous films, including Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, The Milk of Human Kindness, The Eighth Day, Nadia and the Hippos and, perhaps most memorably National 7, where his wheelchair bound hero, René fights every step of the way with the problems that beset him. As a former union militant now living in a Roman Catholic Centre for the disabled, he sees fighting for his rights not only as a broader political issue, but equally a specifically personal one – central to the film is Rene’s right to sexual release, and everything in Gourmet’s performance again functions off the immediacy of pleasure and frustration over ‘deeper’ purpose.
What we’ve proposed here is nothing more than that Gourmet is an actor of the body who works with the immediacy of mise-en-scene. Whether working as a carpenter in The Son, or furiously wheeling his wheelchair around in National 7, Gourmet gives to acting a physicality that might be taken as a given of the medium but actually is less common than one might think. It is often after all said that cinema is the medium of the close-up, and yet Gourmet’s close-ups give almost nothing away. When a filmmaker does move in close on Gourmet, as the Dardennnes often do, it is less to register expression on the face, but more the activity of the body. Frequently we see parts of Gourmet’s physical frame proving too hectic and expansive for the cinematic frame. Maybe Gourmet isn’t doing anything especially fresh, and a wag might propose that he’s like a combination of Ricky Tomlinson and Gerard Depardieu, but he seems an actor flying in the face of the sort of comfort zone acting of many a star that plays to the typical cinematic vocabulary of establishing shot, medium shot and close-up, and whose performance always goes into the furthering of the story over the examination of the cinematic space the actor is in. Gourmet’s is no small achievement, and he passes for one of the acting discoveries of the last fifteen years.