This was 26th Film Festival 2012
Ladies and gentlemen, dear Monsieur Gourmet
I thank the Braunschweig Film Festival for the opportunity to be able to speak in honour of a European film actor whose work has impressed and fascinated me for a long time – and, even more, has deeply moved me. Unfortunately I have not beent able to decide up to now how I should entitle this speech. I considered “character as a pleasure principle” and “the gift of confidentiality”. Such indecision is not really a very good start, you will be thinking. But please be patient with me. In secret I am hoping of course that in the end you will find neither of the two titles quite wrong.
Last February – on the 24th to be exact – Olivier Gourmet had a reason to be disappointed and two reasons to feel satisfaction. It was on the evening when the “César”, the French film award, was being given. “L’exercise de l’État – I have problems with the German distribution title “Der Aufsteiger” – was nominated in numerous categories. Olivier Gourmet did not win anything in the “best actor” category. On the other hand, his partner Michel Blanc won the award for “best supporting actor”. Even the sound technicians of the film were given an award. Their speech of thanks was extremely noble: they thanked the film actors for the great privilege of being allowed to record their voices.
I do not know how big Olivier Gourmet’s disappointment was on that evening – yes, if he actually felt any disappointment at all. He is an actor who reveals a lot about his characters but at the same time knows how to keep their secrets. Many of them are burdened by resentments; I assume that the actor himself is not like that. I am however quite certain that he was very happy for the award won by his fellow actor. Like every good actor Gourmet is an outstanding ensemble performer, a magnanimous team player. And in all probability there are not many in his profession that will appreciate the praise of his sound technicians like he does. This has come from the mouths of people whom one generally sees as mere craftsmen. But in actual fact they are often great artists. And we can regard Olivier Gourmet as someone who has great respect for such craft. For he knows that without such craft there can be no great art.
It is no exaggeration to call this attitude humility. This is important for an actor. I doubt whether Olivier Gourmet has ever been ungrateful for a role. He has at least never shown this to the audience. And this attitude has something to do with where he comes from. He was born in Belgium near Namur in 1963. His father was a cattle trader and ran a farm. His mother was a cook in a hotel. He never experienced, he once said, that they ever stopped working. He has inherited this work ethos. He discovered his enthusiasm for acting by accident: when he had to stand in at the last minute for a fellow pupil in a school production. He immediately felt how wonderful it can feel to seduce an audience. When he applied for a place at the Conservatoire royal de Liège, his father is reputed to have said: “I hope you don’t get it.” It is good that his father’s hope was not realized. At any rate he has not disgraced his family since then. He is an actor that respects his own roots. He has both feet well on the ground. He knows how to pursue his dreams and his ambition with sobriety. His career bears witness to a certain verve and emphatic loyalty. He has been very close to the two brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, from the very beginning. And he actually likes to call himself their “third brother”. All three have good reason for being proud of this relationship.
The Dardenne brothers are not the only ones that value Gourmet as an actor who takes over responsibility for his figures and takes sides with them. This means that his directors do not always have an easy time with him. But he does not have to make it easy for them. When he made the film “Home” with Ursula Meier, he argued with her about the end of the film which seemed wrong to him. Some time passed before she was able to convince him. This elapsing of time will not have been pointless but will have helped the film. But he pursues his profession not only with the pride of a craftsman. I recently read in an interview with him in the French magazine “Positif”. The word that he most frequently uses when referring to his work is “plaisir”, i.e. pleasure. You have to interpret this as a thoroughly non-Protestant type of pleasure, judging by his characters and the way he acts them. Monsieur Gourmet, his surname, is indeed most appropriate.
We audience cannot know how much a film award can actually mean to an actor. His work follows its own logic and commitment, its own ambition and rhythm. It has its own personal milestones which usually remain concealed from the audience. Nevertheless, when Olivier Gourmet is awarded the “Europa” tonight, this has a legitimation which nobody can doubt. This award is the expression of appreciation and encouragement: it honours a life’s work, up to the present, which allows us to hope for even more in the future. So the missed chance from that evening last February will be corrected – an evening when Olivier Gourmet did not in fact really lose but won twice.
I would like to come back to the praise of the sound technicians of “L’exercise de l’État”. For the voice is a good starting-point to pay tribute to the work of an actor. Listen very closely when you see “L’exercise de l’État”. As a politician Bertrand Saint-Jean – that is what he is called here – has to find the right tone for the public. Within the circle of his colleagues, however, his tone is often brusque, even cutting. The character can be choleric, but he is in no way evil. You can in fact hear what remains of innocence and warmth in this timbre which could easily get lost in the everyday business of government. Gourmet has to talk a lot in this film. Sometimes his voice is rough, even hoarse. You can hear how long the working day of a minister lasts. The voice is imbued with a mixture of determination and brittleness so as to explore this figure. Saint-Jean has arrived in French politics as an outsider. He does not belong to the Seraglio, the inner circle of elite schools and great families from which government ministers are otherwise recruited. It was not an unpatriotic but a wise decision of the director to fill the role of a French minister with a Belgian.
Let us look at a second instrumentl which Olivier Gourmet uses masterfully: his body. He is robust. In. “L’exercise de l’État” the actor explores, as it were, the physiology of power. In so doing, he does not shy away from the intimacy of certain moments. At the beginning he awakes in a state of arousement from an erotic dream: as transport minister at the scene of an accident he has to demonstrate that he is deeply concerned as well as showing sympathy. He does not only produce it in front of the running camera, but also really feels it – this is demonstrated by the violence with which he vomits. On one occasion he drinks without restraint and begins to works on a building site with his top off. On another occasion a telephone calls reaches him when he is sitting on the toilet.
The film world discovered what sort of amazingly expressive physical actor Gourmet is when he appeared ten years ago in the film “The Son” (le fils), directed by the Dardenne brothers. In these brothers he found like-minded directors who wanted to develop a figure by focusing on its physical presence. He is an actor that is inspired by the physical side of things and whose characters manifest themselves through gestures. At the time of the film, critics coined the well-known saying that it was actually his neck that had won the acting award in Cannes for “le fils”. Gourmet’s body language is – to borrow from Alfred Hitchcock – pure suspense. At the beginning the camera follows the view of his back unremittingly – it takes incredibly long until you eventually see his face. Thick glasses however blur the look from his eyes. His neck is an obstacle which continually gets in the way of the camera. After the departure of this blockade the camera sensitively follows every single gesture. His hands never stop moving. He makes clear that this activity is an escape, a refusal of a bitter man – his son had been killed years ago – to enter into dialogue with the others.
Before “Le fils“ came out in Germany at that time, I had the opportunity to interview Olivier Gourmet. For me it was certainly a more impressive meeting than for him. He related how he had found a joiner in order to find out about the work procedures for his character from him. In so doing I was not only impressed by the thoroughness of his preparation. I really liked the words with which he won over the joiner for his project: “Listen, the brothers want to make a film in which I pursue your profession.” What an enviable film country in which a craftsman knows immediately what directors are being talked about! Gourmet explained how he went about it meticulously: “In this film it was a question of exploring the marks that a biography leaves behind on the body. And they accumulate in the back of a figure, in its tense neck muscles. His first answer took a good 12 minutes. It is a rare privilege to interview an actor who gives such an exact account of his profession.
Over the years Gourmet has proved again and again most impressively that he can put his body to the service of a film with utter commitment.. I would like to emphasise two examples from many. In the “Le lait de la tendresse humaine” by Dominique Cabrera, which only ran here on television, he shares one of the most blissful erotic scenes that have ever been filmed in this century with Yolande Moreau. Neither of them look like photo models. This makes the scene even more passionate and sensual. During their lovemaking every fibre of their bodies tells of the joy of both characters meeting again after such a long time and getting to know each other anew in this way. During the festival in “Uneasy Rider” / “Nationale 7” you can see how much power of expression his body possesses even in an enforced immobility when his figure is bound to a wheelchair.
An important instrument of the actor is still missing: his face. It is of a heroic normality. This makes Olivier Gourmet into what one could call a representative actor: he is able to lend a face to an almost unlimited range of figures. During the retrospective you could gain an impression of this versatility. He is credible as a member of all layers of society. The list of actors that have been awarded the “Europa” up to now proves that the European and especially the francophone cinema has this uniquely magnanimous tradition at its disposal of not wanting to differentiate between character actors and stars. A European politician does not necessarily have to show the facial features of George Clooney in “The Ides of March”; even if this is not a bad political thriller and Clooney is a good actor.
We would not be surprised to meet Olivier Gourmet in a bus or at a market. For he does in fact represent people like us – even when it sometimes does not suit us. Think of his first collaboration with the Dardenne brothers in “La Promesse”. There he plays a smuggler who exploits illegal immigrants in a most ruthless, yes, even brutal manner. A man whom one would like to drink a glass of something with in the evening – as the directors once said – and who is also a monster. Gourmet gets himself involved in both sides ruthlessly: both in a jovial and in an abhorrent way. It is no accident that he is a sought after and also gifted player of villains for he also approaches the shabbiness of a figure without any sort of condescension. To achieve this, the actor offers the audience the most honest of all prerequisites: he tries in the first place to understand the character. He creates confidentiality between himself and the character, and then between the character and the audience.
By the way, you should not be surprised if Olivier Gourrnet were to meet you at a certain hotel’s reception desk. Years ago together with his wife he has in fact taken over the hotel which was once founded by his grandparents and in which his mother works as a cook. It is situated in his home town in the Ardennes and is called “Le Beau Site”. Originally, he and his wife had taken this decision because of the uncertainty of the film business: as a provision for retirement and - now as then - to have one foot firmly rooted in reality. I have no doubt that it is an excellently managed hotel. But it is reported that guests regularly go back home disappointed because they have not managed to see the famous landlord at all. This is because he is simply too often in front of the camera. Far be it for me to wish for dissatisfied guests at the hotel. But even more I wish for us European moviegoers that Olivier Gourmet will often have reason not to stand at the hotel reception desk.
Find all the pictures from the 26th filmfest on our Flickr page!