Monday, 13 April 2009
MM's Pete Tombs headed to L'Etrange festival in France last week to present a bunch of Mondo movies - when we learnt that the guest of honour was none other than legendary film maker Jean-Louis van Belle - well..... read on!
Now in its third year, the Etrange Festival Lyon is one of the most fun events around for fans of really “out there” cinema. Run by the young and highly motivated enthusiasts from the Zone Bis team, its aims are to entertain and enlighten. Films new and old, famous and obscure are all screened there over the course of the week long festival with specially invited guests to introduce many of them. Lyon was home to the Lumiere Brothers and hence has good claim to being the birth place of cinema. It’s a friendly and picturesque city on the banks of the mighty Rhone and one of the centres of French gastronomy. Good food, good company, good films – what more could you ask for? Merci à toute l'équipe Zone Bis for making our short stay such a fun and eventful one.
The Director with the Red Teeth!
Meeting for the first time someone whose films you’ve admired is always a nerve wracking experience. What if they turn out to be a complete dick, or if they hate you? Or, worse, what if the films you loved so much are, in their eyes, mere pieces of pap churned out to earn a quick buck and their REAL masterpiece is some turgid, third rate melodrama with all the appeal of a glass of cold sick. Well, all have happened in the past. So it was with some trepidation that I travelled to Etrange Festival in the southern city of Lyon last Friday (April 3rd). They were having a Mondo Macabro Evening of two films and a documentary and I was invited to present and answer questions. Pretty good in itself, but the real excitement for me was that the guest of honor was none other than the mysterious and elusive Mr Jean-Louis van Belle, creator of the legendary 1971 film Le Sadique aux Dents Rouges (The Sadist with Red Teeth). Perhaps, if our schedules allowed, I might actually get to meet him.
I first came across the film in the pages of Barrie Patterson’s groundbreaking book The Seal of Dracula. There the film is praised for its “comic paper invention” and is flagged up as one of the few films to be influenced by Jean Rollin’s work. Naturally, with that pedigree, it was something to look out for. However, while all sorts of cinematic obscurities were unearthed during the heyday of video, Le Sadique resolutely resisted rediscovery. And naturally, that made it only more desirable. Then, one day some years back, a small package thudded through the letter box. Its contents, a humble VHS cassette (remember those?) containing the elusive Sadique.
I was almost scared to put it into the machine. Could any film live up to the expectations that this one had aroused? Fortunately, it did. In fact it exceeded them. Le Sadique turned out to be a veritable gem of European genre cinema. Packed with strange and surreal images and run through with a verve and joi de vivre that made it irresistible.
After that first film, the floodgates seemed to open and over the next few months I got to see another four works from the van Belle cannon. With each viewing my interest in him and his films increased. I began serious attempts to track him down. Many and varied were the stories that came back: he was dead; he was insane and incarcerated in a madhouse; he had never existed and his name was a pseudonym for a rich society boy who had crawled back under the cloak of respectability; perhaps worst of all, he was some sort of ageing saddo who hated and rejected these works of juvenilia and was doing his very best to destroy them forever.
So, as I stood outside the Comoedia theatre in the Saturday morning Lyonnais sunshine, I was more than a little nervous. I had no reason to be. The doors opened and out burst the human tornado that is Mr Jean-Louis van Belle. Then ensued a fun packed and lively three hour lunch where our small but eager gang received a master class in how to play an audience and grow a legend.
We were taken on an anecdote packed journey through 1960’s and 70’s European cinema. We heard about his early short films, his brief career as an actor and his work as assistant and second unit director on such films as Paris Secret and Golden Claws of the Cat Girl. These led to his directorial debut with the film Paris Interdit (Forbidden Paris) and then the series of films with the Belgian company Cinevision that included Le Sadique aux Dents Rouges, Pervertissima, and Bastos ou ma Soeur Prefer le Colt 45 (My Sister Prefers a Colt 45). He then moved on to starrier casts and bigger budgets with dramas such as À l'ombre d'un été (In the Shadow of one Summer), which featured Maurice Ronet, Josephine Chaplin and Charles Vanel. In the 80’s, as cinemas audiences declined and TV took over, Mr van Belle developed a highly successful career making promotional and industrial films for some of the nation’s top firms, travelling all around Europe in the process and making a heap of dough.
His early films, he says, were made with his “family” of collaborators in the spirit of adventure, like a gang of kids going out on a quest to have fun and discover what the world had to offer. They were part of a learning process. Now he’s back, with an exciting project utilising the very latest in 3D technology. To hear him explain this film-to-be in his inimitable, highly visual style, was to see a real story teller in action. And it made me realise that if cinema had not existed, guys like Jean Louis van Belle would have had to invent it, just to find an outlet for their crazed creativity.
Welcome back, JLVB!