Raoul Servais: Courts-Métrages

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“Courts-métrages”, the French term for short films, is one of those phrases like “bande dessinée” that I prefer to its English equivalent. Among the weekend’s viewing was this double-disc DVD release devoted to the animated films of the Belgian director Raoul Servais. Some of the films are very familiar and have been the subject of previous posts, but the set comprises 14 films in total, and includes many I’d not seen before. Like Jan Svankmajer, Servais is generally the writer/director of his films rather than the animator which accounts for the great variety of graphic styles, although both directors helped animate their early works. The Servais art styles range from the flat UPA-derived idiom of the 1950s, through a variety of drawing techniques, to the later films which deploy “Servaisgraphy”, a process that combines live action and animation with drawn or photographed backgrounds. The last two films in the collection use digital technology.

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Harpya.

If there’s a common thread to this oeuvre it would be the Belgian brand of Surrealism, which might seem like a lazy comparison when so much animation can be described as superficially “surreal”. In the case of Servais, however, the connection is made explicit in Nocturnal Butterflies, a film dedicated to the Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux, whose paintings also inspired the director’s flawed feature film, Taxandria (1994). The Servais masterwork, Harpya, which won a Cannes Palme d’Or for best short film, is Surrealist to the tips of its feathers, a dark and absurd dream that’s a world away from his moralistic early works. One of the films I’d not seen before, November Diversion, resembles a Svankmajer live-action short, a wordless piece about a man trying to escape from an automobile cemetery. All the shorts have been restored by Cinematek, the Belgian film archive. I ordered my DVDs from Potemkine, Paris.

Contents
Disc 1: Harbour Lights (1960) / November Diversion (1962) / The False Note (1963) / Chromophobia (1965) / Sirene (1968) / Goldframe (1969) / To Speak or Not To Speak (1970) / Operation X-70 (1971) / Pegasus (1973) / Halewyn’s Song (1976) / Harpya (1979) / Nocturnal Butterflies (1998) / Atraksion (2001) / Tank (2015)
Disc 2: Servais (2018), a 60-minute documentary by Rudy Pinceel

Previously on { feuilleton }
Papillons de Nuit, a film by Raoul Servais
Sirene by Raoul Servais
Harpya by Raoul Servais
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux

François Schuiten record covers

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Claudine Simon (1980) by Claudine Simon.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Belgian artist François Schuiten is a familiar name here, being the co-creator with Benoît Peeters of the Obscure World, one of my favourite zones of fantastic invention. The Obscure World has grown to become a multimedia endeavour so Schuiten’s involvement with some of the later entries in this post goes beyond providing the cover art to being connected to the music itself.

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De Wolkentrapper (1983) by Herman van Veen.

Herman van Veen is a Dutch writer and singer who produced a number of albums and singles in the 1980s featuring Schuiten cover art. The gravity-defying people are from an early comic strip unattached to the Obscure World mythos, Going to Pieces.

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Signale (1984) by Herman van Veen.

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De Wisselaars (1985) by Herman van Veen.

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Sedimental Journey (1985) by Peter Principle.

The Obscure World makes its cover debut on this solo release by the late Peter Principle, bass player in Tuxedomoon. Principle was American but Tuxedomoon were based at the time in Europe, and their record label, Crammed are Belgian. Obscure World aficionados will recognise the structure about to be submerged by a vast wave as the Network, an inexplicable object first seen in Fever in Urbicand (1985).

Continue reading “François Schuiten record covers”

Le Dossier B by Schuiten and Peeters

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Almost ten years have elapsed since I devoted a week of blog posts to one of my favourite fantastic creations, the Obscure World/Obscure Cities of Belgian artist-and-writer team François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. Schuiten and Peeters’ mythos is a multi-media project with a series of bande desinée albums as its core, a cycle of stories which introduce the reader to some of the cities in the Obscure World (a “counter-Earth” on the opposite side of our Sun), and which are connected by recurrent characters and motifs. Since the completion of the core series, Schuiten, with occasional help from Peeters, has expanded the mythos to encompass other books that flesh out some of the world’s invented history and its connections to our own world, together with other manifestations such as art exhibitions and music releases. Le Dossier B (1995) is a peripheral Obscure World production, a 54-minute TV documentary which entangles the genuine history of 20th-century Brussels with an invented secret society who believe in the existence of a twin city, Bruzel, that intersects with the Belgian capital.

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Le Dossier B was directed by Wilbur Leguebe from a script by Leguebe with Schuiten and Peeters. Valérie Lemaître plays the on-camera investigator, “Claire Devillers”, while artist and writer appear in roles that match their personalities. Schuiten is seen in silent footage as “Robert de la Barque”, an artist whose obsession with Brussels’ vast Palace of Justice provides clues to the Bruzel mystery via the eccentricities of its architect, Joseph Poelaert. Peeters appears later in the investigation as “Pierre Lidiaux” the author in 1960 of Le Dossier B (a book which has since vanished), his own study of the connections between Brussels and Bruzel. We first see Lidiaux being interviwed on a TV arts show, then later as the presenter of his own eccentric and unfinished film about Antoine Wiertz, the real-life Belgian painter of vast canvasses on morbid subjects whose museum Lidiaux explores. Aside from the well-realised historical fakery, one of the pleasures of Leguebe’s witty and imaginative documentary is the spotlight it throws on the history and culture of Brussels and Belgium. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the Wiertz Museum is so close to the European Parliament building which was still under construction when the film was being made. Elsewhere there are references to Magritte, Delvaux and Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, and we catch a glimpse of work by another great Belgian painter, Jean Delville.

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The last third of the film is based around the researches of one James Welles (Adrian Brine), a British historian whose book-length study, Shadows in the Night: A Secret Society in Belgium, explores the connections of yet more historical figures with the Bruzel mystery, including the aforementioned Horta and chemist Ernest Solvay. The historian’s surname may be taken as a deliberate choice: Orson Welles was the director of another documentary mixing fact and fiction, F for Fake, while Welles’ appearance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight provided Schuiten with the model for the central character in La Tour, one of the albums in Schuiten and Peeters’ Obscure Cities series.

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Some of this territory is explored in another of the Obscure Cities albums, Brüsel, especially the building of the Palace of Justice and the concept of “Brusselisation”, a pejorative French term for the rapid demolition of historical quarters of a city to make way for new construction. Where Brüsel has the freedom of the comics medium to refashion the capital in a fantastic manner, Le Dossier B uses the material of our world to suggest another city (possibly the one depicted in the album) whose existence we never see. Apart, that is, for the suggestion near the end of the film that the Bruzel of the secret society is the Brussels of today, a city which has overwritten the Brussels of a century ago, just as the invented encyclopedia in Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius gradually changes the world at large to match its contents.

Le Dossier B is available on DVD but seems to be sold out for now. Alternatively, it may be watched at YouTube in an unsubtitled copy that’s been uploaded in the wrong aspect ratio. The really determined may wish to do what I did: download the video, grab some English subtitles, then watch it in VLC with the aspect ratio set to 16:10. A lot of messing around but it works.

(My thanks to Brussels resident Anne Billson for the YT link!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Urbatecture
Echoes of the Cities
Further tales from the Obscure World
Brüsel by Schuiten & Peeters
La route d’Armilia by Schuiten & Peeters
La Tour by Schuiten & Peeters
La fièvre d’Urbicande by Schuiten & Peeters
Les Murailles de Samaris by Schuiten & Peeters
The art of François Schuiten
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux

Urbatecture

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Spotted at Neatorama this week, Cédric Dequidt‘s Urbicande lamp, a cubic design which appears to be sinking into the table. The Neatorama people don’t seem aware that the name of the lamp refers to Fever in Urbicande (1985), a comic book by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, and the second volume in the masterful Cités Obscures series.

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Fever in Urbicand: Urbatect Eugen Robick ponders the properties of the strange cube which is invulnerable yet able to grow through solid materials.

The mysterious para-dimensional cube and its effects on the divided city of Urbicande have been described here already. Fever in Urbicande is my favourite of the core stories by Schuiten and Peeters, and it seems to be one of the more popular of Schuiten’s creations to judge by the lamp and some of the spin-off works that follow.

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Fever in Urbicand: Several months later, and the cube has burgeoned into a city-spanning “Network”.

Continue reading “Urbatecture”

Papillons de Nuit, a film by Raoul Servais

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From Homosurrealism to Belgio-surrealism. Papillons de Nuit (1997) is a short homage to the Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux featuring a handful of familiar Delvaux motifs including nocturnal tramcars and large-eyed, bare-breasted women. Raoul Servais had already borrowed some of Delvaux’s imagery for his feature-length fantasy, Taxandria (1994), but that film doesn’t sustain itself over its running time despite the involvement of Alain Robbe-Grillet and François Schuiten. Servais’s blend of live action and animation seems to work better in concentrated doses.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Sirene by Raoul Servais
Paul Delvaux: The Sleepwalker of Saint-Idesbald
Harpya by Raoul Servais
Taxandria, or Raoul Servais meets Paul Delvaux