Circus attraction

Gust Van den Berghe on world creation and comedy with weight in The Magnet Man

by Amber Wilkinson

Lucien (Danny Ronaldo) in The Magnet Man. Gust Van den Berghe: 'I think humor is amazing. But at the same time, it cannot come for free? I do like it when it comes with weight'
Lucien (Danny Ronaldo) in The Magnet Man. Gust Van den Berghe: 'I think humor is amazing. But at the same time, it cannot come for free? I do like it when it comes with weight' Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Film Festival
With The Magnet Man Belgian director Gust Van den Berghe transports us both back in time and to a world that, though a far more vibrant aesthetic, recalls the careful creations of Roy Andersson, in that it is simultaneously realised in glorious detail while retaining a theatrical, otherworldly edge. It is there that we meet Lucien (Danny Ronaldo, whose family run Circus Ronaldo and who is perfectly cast as a sort of naif clown), a near-silent protagonist in the Buster Keaton mould, who lives with his parents in the countryside. He’s a simple soul with an unusual talent - the ability to attract metal objects. When he accidentally finds himself attracted to a train on the move and deposited a long way from home, he joins a circus, where he falls for fellow act Gervaise (Isolda Dychauk), this is just the start of a tragicomic tale of love, loss, lies and following your heart.

The film had its premiere at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and we caught up with the director Van den Berghe to chat about world creation, humour and sadness.

There's a lot of silent film heritage in this film. Can you tell us a bit about that?

GVDB: There, maybe, but it didn’t necessarily come by watching a lot of silents. I mean, I watch a lot of silent films, but I have to admit that when I watch great comedians, I get intimidated. I think if I would have watched a lot of silent films I wouldn't have dared to make it. So, in a way, it's more like a dialogue or an answer to something. It's not a direct link but I do think it stems from this tradition of storytelling, this kind of world, this type of freedom, and an almost innocent anarchy.

There's a lot of physicality, which is interesting in a modern cinematic world, which is often densely scripted. This is pulling in the opposite direction

GVDB: Yes, maybe. What was scripted here was the setting. Yeah, we scripted the world and we could let go of it then.

How did you cast it because the central role of the Lucien is so important.

GVDB: It happened a bit intuitively. I met Danny a couple of times, for different reasons. I was researching wagons and how early circuses used electricity, because they were actually one of the first people to implement electricity in the countryside because these people were at the cutting edge of technology - they had electricity, they had moving images. So people, even from farms, went to see the circus to see glowing light bulbs, but also how the wagons were built, how the interiors were made. I mean, when you make a movie, it's the research is as much as much fun as the film. It’s almost a detail to make the film at the end. So I met Danny, who is of course, from eight generations of circus tradition. So he was my guy and then, of course, I started to watch his performances a lot. And we discussed his family history, his wagons.

He lives in a wagon. His whole family does. He's now a grandfather of a boy of two whohas also been now rolled into the circus. So it's really a tradition that he has - it’s as old as my country. He’s a clown, an acrobat. They evolved to a more comedia del arte type of theatre, so there’s a plot, there’s a story and it’s much more complex than the traditional circuses, where you have act structure. But at the same time, the dialogue between the public and and the freedom he has that kind of character he plays but in the film he plays a different character.

The film moves from the black and white of the rural grind, to the colour of the circus, was that something that you always had in mind?

GVDB: No, this came in editing actually. I mean, I could say now, yes, of course, we thought about it. But no, because we were very aware of all the colours. And I always depicted also Lucien’s home in color. But it's also nice to sometimes let films speak. And it just was very logical.

So do you have an interest in the circus tradition?

GVDB: Of course, yeah, but I have an interest in many things. Of course, that's why we're storytellers. We jump into worlds that are maybe unknown, or we want to belong to or we're deeply interested in, or on an unconscious level, we feel extremely connected to. But what is interesting in this case, is that I started to write a story about my own family histories, legends in the family, with our name Van den Berghe. And so I started to look into that and that was the basis of the screenplay. And somehow a circus came. It's like in a dream, I always kept dreaming of circuses, so I just put a circus in. And then Danny, which is Danny Ronaldo, but actually, the name of Ronaldo is a name that was only given in the Seventies. Before that it was always called for, for decades, called circus Van den Berghe. And it's very interesting how the families actually were connected and how sometimes, when you work in the dark, you kind of meet on the other side. And it was very nice. And also the story I wrote was very close to his great grandfather's story, he’d run away from home, met a girl, they started the circus went away, and that's how his circus came about. So that's also one of the reasons we felt we should do this together. I mean, this is too much of a coincidence, almost to not try it.

GVDB: I think humor is amazing. But at the same time, it cannot come for free? I do like it when it comes with weight. I think sadness cannot be free either, you have to like when these things are balanced when, when there's a curve, and we can taste from everything a little bit.

What is nice is that, in a way, it’s a sad film but people do remember it as a very joyful film. And I think that's a very hopeful idea. I was thinking about the film afterwards, as well and it’s interesting, it’s a bit lik Pinocchio. Pinnochio is, if you think about it, a very cruel story but we don’t perceive it that way. It’s only when we’re watching it. That’s what’s so good about it, it’s not for free either, even the tough parts are necessary.

I see the original title was Rain Anyway and there is that lovely moment where a rain cloud follows Lucien about. How technically difficult with that

GVDB:We did it one time, It's just with a sprinkler. I think it's nice that you see it's so shaky? I love the effect. I mean, all the effects in the film are kind onset practicaleffects. And in that sense, it is good. We did it only once. Some things we had to do many times. But here, it was nice. We just had one take.

Right from the start you’re inviting us to accept the physical effects with the cotton wool clouds.

GVDB: Totally. And I think in the bigger sense, yeah, you see, the whole world is basically in that code. Even his house and all the characters are grotesque, so in a sense it is one big theater.

I loved the texture of the film, it's got a really beautiful texture with things hanging in places. So there's a real sense of depth.,

GVDB: I love to look at films of the Fifites and Sixtiess, where they really were very aware of colour, of palettes of props. How we can activate all these elements, an umbrella, a jacket, a violin, how all these things actually carry stories. I think it's quite nice that actually, he himself doesn't say a lot in the film, but all the things that surround him are speaking for him. And so in that sense, I think it's nice to look at a film from the past but we can look at what is here right now at the table and imagine maybe how this scarf can have a life before and after and how all these things can be passed on if you want.

I don't want to be preachy about this. It's not that I want to make a film only for film buffs or something like that but I do like, for example, the Powell and Pressburger films where they have this kind of also this technicality this theatricality that I think is quite old fashioned, but in a way daring to look at it again in a way. So maybe let's go back to this and try to make a film that nobody does any more because I mean, even to have a painted cloud and the stage. It's quite complicated. Unnecessarily expensive. We shot it in an abandoned factory.

GVDB: Yeah. But I think of course, it will be something else. I'm not gonna paint the sky any more. We did it but it's very limiting as well. We had to really reinvent language for ourselves.

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