As officially synopsized at the film's Belgian website: "Pim lives in a run-down house in a dead-end street somewhere at the Belgian coast, together with his mother Yvette Bulteel (better known as Yvette Mimosa, local accordion starlet). Life here smells of cold French fries, cheap cigarettes, vermouth and stale beer. Mother Yvette uses her fat Etienne with his lousy grey Fiat as a driver for the nights she has to 'perform'.
"As a kid Pim dreams of a better life, imagining princesses and beauty queens. But when Pim turns 16 he dreams of Gino, the boy next door, instead. Ever since they were children there has been this tension between them. Now Gino is Pim's motorcycling hero. Cold mockery, little humiliations and tiny bits of hope make up Pim's life. No wonder he sometimes flees to his dream world.
"Then one day Yvette leaves with young, hunky Zoltan, the boy from the fair. When Yvette leaves her son alone in the empty house, Pim seizes the opportunity and his dreams become half-truths. Pim moves to the neighbors' house to live with Marcella, his 'second mum'. And with Sabrina, Gino's sister, who circles longingly around Pim. He even sleeps in Gino's bed! But Gino's off romancing and living with a girl from across the border. Dreams never come true. Or do they? On a rainy day Gino returns."
North Sea, Texas premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival where it picked up the FIPRESCI prize for best first feature and the Silver Zenith for Defurne. As reviewed by Variety's Alissa Simon, "The pic benefits from an artful combination of naturalistic performances and attractively stylized visuals, aided by judicious use of an evocative score. The isolated seaside location (unspecified in the film but shot in Ostende) practically becomes a character itself, with gorgeous shots of crashing waves, blowing reeds and empty sand dunes employed lyrically throughout."
Michael Hawley reviewed the film when it screened at the 36th edition of San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival: "North Sea, Texas has gorgeous widescreen cinematography, eye-catching 1970s art direction, nicely observed moments and fine performances, but the storytelling and tone lean toward overly languid." Hawley is not alone in his critique. At The Guardian, Henry Barnes deems Defurne's debut "engaging, if placid" and writes, "Defurne makes a point of shunning social realism and presents lonely, horny Pim's story through a fog of polished-to-a-glow stylishness. North Sea, Texas looks beautiful, is acted brilliantly, but it's hard to get a hold on when Pim's drifting by in a dream world."
I'm less distracted by the film's dream-like "languidity" and more focused on what seems to be a deliberately cadenced affirmation—dare I say fantasy?—of a love between two boys gently formed from its own organic sense, its own integrity, arising from the chance proximity of being friends living next door to each other, evolving through puberty into recognition and self-awareness, towards a sensual potential for commitment. And all of this without the overworn coming-out narrative tropes that emphasize anguish, guilt, shame and self-laceration. North Sea, Texas admirably skirts such negativities to provide its affirmative coming-of-age fable. Truer to the gradual process by which Pim and Gino become themselves and discover who they might be to each other, languidity strikes me as an appropriate and sensual choice that aptly captures the desires and frustrations of their teenage years. Theirs is not a love story that accidentally happens—it's meant to happen—and Bavo Defurne takes his time and exercises a light touch in capturing the integral rhythm of that meaning; that fantasy of tween love as destiny.
My thanks to Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing—who picked up the film's U.S. distribution—for offering the opportunity to speak with Bavo Defurne during his Frameline appearance. North Sea, Texas opens November 2, 2012, in New York City at Clearview's Chelsea and in Los Angeles at Sundance Sunset (venues subject to change). It opens December 7 in San Francisco and Berkeley at Landmark Theatres.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
* * *
Michael Guillén: Bavo, I first became aware of North Sea, Texas at its U.S. premiere in the World Cinema program of the Palm Springs Film Festival, earlier this year. Straight off, I'd like to winnow out the geographical pun within the film's title?
Bavo Defurne: The film is placed in Belgium where it faces the North Sea; the sea between Belgium and England. "Texas" comes from the name of the bar where Pim and his mother go. This combination reflects how this is a world of its own.
Defurne: Totally. In Belgium, just after the Second World War, people were proud of America for helping liberate Europe. Texas, cowboys, and anything American became hip. It was hip to call your bar Texas. There was even a Texas Bar in my village. So there was a Texas Bar in the book, yes.
Guillén: You started your career as a maker of short films, which achieved international recognition. Can you speak to the value for you of starting off with short films? And when you knew you were ready for a full-length feature? What was involved for you in that transition from short to feature-length?
Campfire). I've shown these short films to a lot of audiences. It's nice to make these little pieces of art to share with audiences. The industry, however, doesn't really consider you as a "real" filmmaker, I would say. The value of making a feature-length film is that it has opened a lot of doors that were not open when I was a shorts filmmaker. The problem with short films is also that you can't really go as deep to develop complex characters; you're always limited to a sketch. What I really enjoyed about making a feature-length film was that I could add characters and that the film was much more than just a boy in love with his neighbor. Of course, that's what the film is about, but it also tells a tale about single mothers struggling to give the most to their kids, and about a sister who discovers that the boy that she loves is in love with her brother. So a full-length feature provides the opportunity to tell a more complex story and that's what I really like.
Guillén: I've pushed Campfire to the top of my Netflix queue and, in the interim, have watched the teasers on your Vimeo channel. Immediately apparent from watching the Vimeo teasers is why many critics have compared your work to such wide-ranging influences as Pierre et Gilles and Sergei Eisenstein. But who do you feel has had the most influence on your filmmaking vision?
Defurne: There's no one in particular. I'm a bit like a sponge. I absorb a lot and it comes out mixed. When I make a film, I put ideas, images and feelings together that have never been put together in this particular configuration, y'know? I love films by Terrence Malick or Carl Theodor Dreyer, but I also love Pedro Almodóvar. These films are all around me and I am in the middle of them. I absorb them and I give something back that is a mix of these influences.
Guillén: Absolutely, I agree. And that's very much why I enjoyed your film. I'm pushing 60 myself but I can still look back and remember what it was like for me at 14 or 15 growing up in Idaho and I recognized similar elements to my own upbringing in North Sea, Texas, namely an atmosphere to how I learned about myself.
Defurne: Oh wow, thank you!
Guillén: Mythologist Joseph Campbell frequently asserted that people are constantly looking for the meaning of life, when actually what they want is an authentic experience of life. You have insinuated that authentic experience as an interiorized one, which the character Pim reflects. In terms of what is authentic, why is the interior life more authentic to you than, let's say, a socially realistic document that is authentic by way of exterior detail?
Guillén: It's less a "coming out" narrative than a story about how a young person becomes himself.
Jelle Florizoone play Pim in the various stages of his development from a kid to a young adult, I had a "code" with Jelle. I told him that Pim would go from princess to prince to king. Any time Jelle would struggle with a scene, with who he was within a scene and how he should play it, I would say, "Remember, Jelle, you're a princess now. Remember, Jelle, you're becoming a king." Jelle was only 14 when we made the film but in the film he had to show the growth from 14 to 17. He had to know what this transformation was all about, which is what the film is all about, a princess becoming a prince becoming a king. At the beginning Pim is weak and fragile, he's experimenting, but by film's end he's stronger than his mom, stronger than the boy he adored, very strong and self-assured indeed, and that's what I liked about this character.
Guillén: That's a lovely way to code this character. Within that context, one of my favorite moments in the film, one which had a visceral effect on me as an audience member, was precisely the moment when Pim transforms from the "princess" at the window with his arms outstretched to the slightly-older prince. This shift from the younger actor Ben Van den Heuvel to Jelle Florizoone who then carries the rest of the film was beautifully accomplished.
Defurne: But there are other subtle changes as well. For example, the character of Pim early in the movie would never fight with and hit Gino (Mathias Vergels) and, thereby, become stronger. Pim in the beginning would never drink a beer, which he does at the end of the film. All of his mementos from being a princess, he eventually burns. It's a story similar to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. A caterpillar has to go through a lot to become a butterfly.
Guillén: I admired how the film showed how the young Pim fetishized desire by collecting mementos of key sensual experiences that he kept hidden in a shoebox. These experiences seemed more borrowed, even stolen, than freely chosen. For me, this is what marked Pim's transition from a young man who is longing to live life to the young man who takes the necessary steps to actually begin living life.
Defurne: That's completely correct. As you mentioned, he burns all the mementos in his shoe box and seeks to forget them. He doesn't want to live like that anymore. This was something I had to explain to my younger actors. First, I had to explain what "fetishism" meant in a way that a 14-year-old would understand. "Well," I told Jelle, "Pim loved someone and—because he can't reach that someone—he takes things that relate to that someone and ends up loving the things in place of the person." That's what Pim's fetishism is about. It's always interesting to work with young people because sometimes when you explain something like that, it suddenly makes sense for adults.
Guillén: I have to admit that I did the same thing as a young man. When I couldn't reach someone I love, I would secure something of theirs and obsess over it.
Defurne: A lot of young men do! I did too. So did the writer who wrote the book. A lot of people come up to me after a screening to tell me stories about what they collected. It's different in each case but always interesting. I could write a book now about what young people in Europe or South Africa collect from the people they adored when they experienced their first love.
Guillén: Fascinating. As I mentioned, I'm pushing 60 myself and—having lived a full, rich, sensual life—I now look back at my early innocence to when I started. I'm finding myself not so much nostalgic, not so much wanting to do it again, as I am proud of how fully I've lived my life starting from that innocent place. I've tried to be honest and authentic. I did what I had to do to enter life. Then, as I entered life and matured, my concerns became adult concerns and I put away childish things. But now that I'm older, now that the fire is less blaze and more ember, I find myself looking back to my youth with considerable fondness for where it all began.
Defurne: Me too! I'm now 41 and I have to admit that I couldn't have imagined this story myself. The relationship toward the parent is cynical but mild at the same time. It's critical, but still there's a love for every age and every character in this movie. Even the mother. You could say she's a bad mother because she's always drinking in the bar. Everyone in this film has their positive and their negative sides. Even Pim can be bitchy, unfriendly and a pain the ass. That's a present I can say I got from the novelist. I don't know if this is a story I could have made up now at this time in my life. Maybe in 20 more years I could make up such a story? As you say, these are insights that come from age.
North Sea, Texas is situated at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. So it's more about that generation, maybe? But I hope it transcends that. I hope it opens up to young people today and that 16-year-olds like the film too, so that it's not specifically for either 16-year-olds or 60-year-olds, and that everyone in the audience can get the main themes out of it. That fascinates me.
Guillén: Mythically, North Sea, Texas circumambulates around the authentic moment of first love, the original time, or what the ancients used to term illo tempore; in our cultural tradition, the Garden of Eden. First love is really the Garden of Eden and every time you fall in love after that is an attempted return to the Garden of Eden.
Defurne: You never forget first love. It's the most pure expression. When you get older, yes, you fall in love again but you also have a job, and you also have a household, and you also have a social life. But when you're so young, you live in a small world that's seen through a kind of tunnel vision. This tunnel vision is at the same time claustrophobic but also very beautiful and so pure. That's why the film is what it is. It's a film that inflects a hermetic world, a world that's on its own, and a world that you experience by going within and not, as I said, by looking out the window.
Guillén: One of the ways by which you captured that hermetic feel is through the film's impeccable art direction and production design.
Defurne: Kurt Rigolle was my main production designer. He, with all the rest of the crew, helped me and my producer Yves Verbraeken—with whom I work a lot—to create this particular world. I'm very glad that Anton Mertens, my director of photography, and everyone who didn't want to make their film, wanted instead to make this film with its specific aesthetics and the specific rules of this world that motion pictures inhabit: rules about color, about form, about rhythm. I'm really happy that the crew went with that and respected that also.
Guillén: It's my understanding that a lot of the precedent for the film's style came from the novel, which visually provided the cues you needed?
Guillén: Well, some might argue that it takes a lot of creativity to be true to the intent of a novel through the medium of film. Your film has brought the novel to life and has served to intrigue me to hunt out the novel itself. What more could a novelist ask from a filmmaker adapting his work?
Thomas Coumans had a lithe electricity as the traveling carny Zoltan. How did you find these actors?
Defurne: It wasn't easy. We worked with many casting directors. For the roles of the young boys Pim and Gino, we auditioned a total of 220 boys. It was a long and quite hard casting. I must say we did find Gino very early in the process, after only about 10 boys we already had him and never found anyone better, but then we needed to find his match, which in some ways made it even more difficult. Also making it more difficult was that a lot of boys didn't dare play the roles, or weren't allowed by their parents. That was painful and openly sad because I had crying young actors calling to say their parents wouldn't allow them to act in this movie. I felt a lot of the dreams of these young boys who wanted to be actors had been broken by the parents.
But by the end of the casting process, just a few weeks before shooting actually, Jelle auditioned and we knew in a second—the producer, me and the casting director—that Jelle was Pim. The key to that was not only that he was specifically like Pim—though in real life he's a bit different—but, in his real life, Jelle had a big, important background as a professional dancer. It gave him and Matthias Vergels, who was also a professional actor, the freedom to be their characters on set playing their roles, while at the same time I gave them their freedom to be themselves the moment I said, "Cut!" I didn't probe into their private lives. I didn't ask, "Who do you love?" or "What are your sexual experiences?" I avoided that. I avoided talking about my personal experiences, about my personal life, and we used all our time in preparation talking about and living the lives of Pim and Gino and living the love between these fictional characters. Their professionalism really helped.
Guillén: I took note and was touched by your dedication in North Sea, Texas to "all the kids whose parents wouldn't let them take part in this film." That was a lovely acknowledgment on your part.
Defurne: I won't go into detail about private cases, but there were cases that really touched me so much. When I was that age, I didn't know if I would become an actor or a fashion designer. At 14, I didn't even know being a filmmaker could be a profession. But these dreams are so beautiful and as a human being, not a filmmaker, I was deeply touched by seeing boys of that age cry because their dream has been cut short. I couldn't really help in any way because it was a casting after all, not only of the kids but of their parents as well. While I was auditioning the kids, the casting director was auditioning the parents and checking whether or not they were supportive of the project, believed in it and shared the dream of their children to act in it. If some of the boys weren't fortunate enough to have supportive parents like that, I hope they will still see the movie and see the dedication and realize there is still hope for them and that maybe in three to five years they'll be able to live their lives. Fourteen is not the end of the world. You can still pursue a career at 20. I have a friend who's 40 and changed his career to begin acting. It's not a trauma. Life will get better. And that's what I wanted to tell them actually.
Eva van der Gucht) competes with him, whereas Gino's mother Marcella (Katelijne Damen) has a deeper sense of what will fulfill both Pim and Gino. Can you speak to the importance of profiling the mothers, their characterizations, and how you cast these two actresses?
Defurne: Well, in French you would say la maman et la putain, the mother and the whore, which is perhaps a bit exaggerated in this instance; but, Pim's mother is never home, she's always in a bar, she's always drinking, she doesn't care after her kids, and she never cooks for them. But what's interesting is that Gino's mother is the opposite: she's always home, she cooks, etc. I tried not to judge them. I tried to understand both of them.
Guillén: Marcella's death bed sequence was notably poignant. In a world where gay youth are often rejected by their parents and families—which is such a sorrowful situation—North Sea, Texas exhibits so much hope in that sequence where Marcella clasps the hands of the two boys together, which confirms their love for one another. I want to thank you for that affirmative ending.
Defurne: It's already in the book but I like that too. That scene shows that a lot of parents can't express their love. They can't say, "I accept that you're gay." Maybe they don't really want to talk about it? Maybe they don't have the vocabulary? Maybe their upbringing and education made it taboo to talk about it? But silently they discover there is nothing wrong with their gay children. Silently they accept that their love for their children is universal, whether they're gay or straight, they're still their kids. But they can't really say it with words. That death bed sequence is a scene without words so you can almost make anything of it, but personally I think that she knew it all the way but didn't want to say it, didn't want to make a scene or a drama out of it. Her last words are worthless almost by doing that, by showing the two boys that it's okay that they love each other. That scene moves me a lot. It moved the sound man during shooting. The actors had microphones on their bodies and after shooting he told me we wouldn't be able to use the sound because everyone on set was so emotional and the hearts of the actors were pounding so loudly. But isn't that the magic of cinema? That the emotion is so human that it affects the whole cast and crew? It goes straight to the heart, physically.