Highwire woman of all trades

We remember Belgian filmmaker Marion Hänsel

by Richard Mowe

Marion Hänsel … a singular career spanning more than three decades as actress, director, producer and trapeze artist.
Marion Hänsel … a singular career spanning more than three decades as actress, director, producer and trapeze artist. Photo: Man Films

The Belgian film-maker Marion Hänsel, who died of a heart attack in Brussels yesterday (8 June), had a varied career which saw her work as a trapeze artist, perform circus tricks for the grandmother of the New Wave Agnès Varda and receive of a timely career retrospective earlier this year at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.

She was born in Marseilles in 1949 but grew up in Antwerp. She left home as a teenager to study painting at art school in Devon, where she honed her English. She had never particularly wanted to be a circus artist but thought it might be a useful way to find parts in films. She spent two years in New York at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio. Returning to Europe, she spent another two years in Paris at circus school under the tutelage of Annie Fratellini, specialising in the trapeze and also such skills as tightrope walking; tap dancing, juggling and acrobatics.

Having made Brussels her base she worked over the years in theatre, television and cinema. Varda enlisted her for One Sings The Other Doesn’t with Sandrine Bonnaire in 1977, as well as in a TV drama.

Marion Hänsel’s Dust - with one of the last performances by Trevor Howard alongside Jane Birkin
Marion Hänsel’s Dust - with one of the last performances by Trevor Howard alongside Jane Birkin Photo: Man Films

Hänsel, who was 71 at the time of her death, ran her own all-female production company, Man Films, for more than 40 years. She had eclectic tastes, directing productions which included Dust (adapted from South African JM Coetzee’s novel), notable for showcasing one of the last performances by Trevor Howard (alongside Jane Birkin) which won the Silver Lion at Venice. In 2001 she made Nuages, Lettres à Mon Fils which involved travels around the globe for an ecological documentary.

Her first short, Equilibre, was shown at Rotterdam in 1977. Subsequently, realising her talents lay more behind the camera than as an actor, she set up first feature The Bed / Le Lit in 1982. Although commercially unsuccessful, it received a prize as the best Belgian film of its year. She fell into production because there were few alternatives in Belgium at the time.

In 1987 she attracted critical plaudits for Les Noces Barbares, adapted from Yann Quefflec’s Goncourt awarding novel and the same year was named Belgium’s Woman of the Year. One of her most notable successes was Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, which was selected for the Cannes Competition in 1995. She lightened her mood in 2013 with feel-good road movie La Tendresse, featuring Marilyne Canto and Olivier Gourmet. She had co-produced several films, such as No Man's Land (2001) and L'Enfer (2005). Hänsel garnered a reputation for making deeply personal films that frequently explored adult-child relationships, including her latest film, There Was A Little Ship / Il était Un Petit Navire made last year. Through archive footage the film dwelt on places she had spent time as she grew up into adulthood.

Recently Hänsel survived a severe illness caused by streptococcus which involved open-heart surgery, a course of antibiotics and a two-month sojourn in hospital. Once she had recovered she plunged back into work and had planned to write short stories as well as nurture two new feature documentaries, The Whale Hunter and a new film about the artist Matisse.

Daniela Elstner, managing director of Unifrance, paid tribute on Facebook. "Thanks for being such a strong woman in our film world for so many years. You helped many of us. For tonight, no more words, scenes of your films in my mind will be enough."

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