by Ranjan Kaul
“Never confuse the ghosts of reason with the ghosts of imagination; these are equations, and these are beings and memories.” – Charles Baudelaire
I recently saw a special screening of a short cine-etched animated film, Après la mort, après la vie (After death, after life) created by Olivier Deprez in collaboration with Adolpho Avril. Intrigued by the film, I later engaged in an online conversation with Olivier to understand the background. This review has greatly benefited from the insights I gained from the chat.
Olivier (left) and Adolpho at the film launch
A quick word about the two film collaborators. Born in October 1966 in Binche, Belgium, Olivier studied comic-making at Institut St-LUC in Brussels. It was while making his first book based on Franz Kafka’s Castle that wood engraving became his chosen medium. From carving to printing, he sees the medium as a fulfilling process. Adolpho is an outsider artist – a painter, comedian and like Olivier a fine woodcut printmaker. He had been suffering from mental illness for some time and working on the film was part of his therapy. He would tell Olivier stories about the doctors and nurses working in the place where he was undergoing treatment. The film transposes images borrowed from Adolpho’s imagination and fantasies, and also his memories.
The film begins with the announcement that it is the testament of Dr A (Le testament du docteur) and has two principal characters: Doctor A and Nurse O. Olivier tells me that he and Adolpho would play a game in which Adolpho would be Doctor A and Olivier, Nurse O. The film also mentions a “mysterious woman” who represents multiple characters.
Among the initial frames is an etching of a roller that says “Black Ink”, hinting that the film would be related in some way to the etching and printing process. Other opening scenes include a crow and a scene at night showing a barrack-like structure, while we hear sounds of a howling dog and snores, and another scene inside a darkened room where a film is being projected. The mysterious woman also makes a brief appearance, peering in through a small grille, here representing the Director of the Art and Social Centre where Adolpho did his residency.
These frames create the atmosphere in which the story unfolds one eerie night. Using the mise en abyme device (a technique of placing a replica of an image within itself and suggestive of an endless recurring sequence), the projection posits the film as a cinematographic act, dramatically transforming the narrative structure. Besides, of course, the stark and graphic black-and-white contrasts of the woodcut engraving, other devices such as the animated trembling of each frame and muffled hoarse whispers in the background accentuate the disturbing mood.
Explaining the animation process to create the “trembling” effect, Olivier says that he printed five pieces of the same woodcut and took separate shots of each, and then inserted a random loop in each frame of the five print images. A total of 220 woodcut-engraved prints were specially created for making the film.
Before we realize it, we willy-nilly are participants of a ghastly unending nightmare together with A and O weaving in and out of old barracks. Olivier informs me that the barracks are in an old military camp somewhere in south Belgium near the hills of the city of Vielsalm and were chosen as the location because they were reminiscent of the Social and Art Centre.
Confined in a dark and cavernous space, to ease their anguish, the two protagonists etch their predicament into a film by deep diving into Adolpho’s subconscious mind. Each of them wears identical masks with long noses. They complement each other but are equally each other’s opposite. In the game they play they work together as a team but towards the end we see each of them standing at either end of a broken bridge with a deep chasm between them. This duality may be read at several levels. While it mirrors Adolpho’s schizophrenic state, at a deeper philosophical level, as living turns into a deathly nightmare, we see the blurring of the real and the imaginary; after birth and after death; art and life –as the boundaries between them dissolve in the process of film-making.
There is a constant refrain in the film about understanding the process. Interpreting this as merely being about comprehending the process of etching and film-making would be simplistic; the deeper meaning could be understanding the nature of art and life. Numerous phantasmagorical and macabre images in the film, many a reminder of death and after death, shock and surprise us: the two protagonists lying side by side inside coffin; skeletons riding a hearse carriage; men carrying a coffin in silent procession. As a welcome relief from these disconcerting visuals, we witness an enjoyable boat ride, a remembrance, Olivier tells me, of the last scene in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s movie Vampyr: The Dream of Alan Gray, a 1932 horror film which he and Adolpho had watched together. Much of the narrative of Dreyer’s movie is told using title cards. In the film a drifter obsessed with the supernatural stumbles upon an inn where an ill adolescent girl is metamorphosing into a vampire. The mysterious woman in Olivier and Adolpho’s film also appears somewhere playing the role of the producer of Vampyr, this time larger-than-life and naked, looking like a ghost.
About midway through the film, we see A and O on circular railway tracks, perhaps suggesting that they feel trapped in a perpetual circle with no escape. This circularity is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s emotive painting Prisoner’s Round (after Gustave Doré) which he made while convalescing in Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He used a print of Newgate Prison, London, as a reference. The work reflects the mental anguish he was suffering from: the prisoner’s walk in a perpetual circle of hell against the backdrop of looming brick walls. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote: “Well, with this mental disease I have, I think of the many artists suffering mentally as I tell myself that this does not prevent one from exercising the painter’s profession as if nothing was amiss.” Adolpho and Van Gogh are no exceptions; we know of innumerable cases of artists taking recourse to expressing themselves through art in times of trouble for solace and healing.
Vincent Van Gogh, Prisoner’s Round (after Gustave Dore),
Oil on canvas, 1889, (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Although this exceptional and unique film was made nearly a decade ago, in 2014, it remains as relevant today as when it was made, be it for its emotive woodcut etchings; the storyboard; its effective use of literary and artistic devices such as the perpetual mise en abyme from assembly to disassembly; or its layers of meaning. Besides being the principal protagonists, A and O are also viewers and creators, impregnating their voice, body, emotion and imagination in the grooves of the engravings from the time the film is born to its culmination.
The mystery woman appears again on a couple of more occasions playing yet different roles: sitting in a an armchair with a clock in the backdrop as if she were the timekeeper or time itself, and a final appearance where she can be seen rummaging through the drawers and pulling out the woodcut prints, on this occasion back to playing the role of the Director of the Social and Art Centre.
The preoccupation with death in the film and the circularity of the railway tracks may be seen as a comment about the cycle of life, after birth and after death. Equally, the film is about the inextricable intertwining of life and art, the nature of art, and the life of the creator living on through the art object after they are no more.
(All images are courtesy of Olivier Deprez. ©Olivier Deprez)
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Monali Roy for screening the film during the exhibition titled “Interfaces” curated by her held a couple of months back at Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Francaise de Delhi, where a number of woodcut prints of the film were on display. I’m also grateful to her for putting me in touch with Oliver Deprez.
Ranjan Kaul is a visual artist, art writer and critic, curator, author and Founding Partner of artamour. His works may viewed on www.ranjankaul.com and his insta handle @ranjan_creates.