INTERVIEW with Christophe Sermet

The former glory of a hotel in Ostend. Emily reminisces about her childhood, when she gave solo performances as a child prodigy, about her hellish relationship with her mother and her turbulent love for Ana, a relationship that shocked Flemish conformist society. Meanwhile, her lover rests on the bed in the suite. On the ground floor a party of bailiffs are celebrating Club Brugge’s victory. The motionless backdrop smothers all passion in the bud. To return to real life, everything requires an act that is both heartbreaking and irreversible. Christophe Sermet has adapted a novel by Hugo Claus, filled with foolish love, disrespect and death wishes. A biting and pathetically immoral tale in chiaroscuro in which the tragicomic humour swings back and forth between Spilliaert’s paintings and Nan Goldin’s photographs.

Where did a Swiss director get his love of Flemish literature?
Shortly after I settled in Belgium, in the early 1990s, I met Hugo Claus. For me, that occasion was a sort of initiation into Belgium, with its complex history and anti-conformist sides. I grew up in Switzerland between two languages, French and German. That country is much more distant from European history than Belgium. Of course, I also felt driven to see what it was like on the other side of the language border. I discovered writers whose writings is not very 'French' at all and whose texts start from the gut rather than from the mind.

To what extent are they – for you - universal?
Like Murakami, Faulkner and Chekhov, Claus and Lanoye are very universal, precisely because they don’t set out to be. Because they play with myths, while allowing the people around them do the talking: their family, their city, their community. For this purpose they invent a new, incisive, poetic and sensual language.

What is it about Claus’s work that appeals to you?
His extreme sensitivity and the way he expresses through the bodies of his novel or stage characters (that’s a great bonus in theatre!). I love the absolute freedom of his style, language and story. And his feeling for the tragicomic, his obsession with desperate passions, the absolute triviality of his dialogues and the cruel humour that emerges from them.

While I was working on my first production, Vendredi, jour de liberté (Vrijdag) by Claus, I became aware of how unknown he was in French-speaking Belgium. People there just didn’t believe he was Belgian. It was as if I was introducing them to an exotic writer that I’d brought with me from a faraway land… I had the same experience with the discovery of Mamma Medea by Tom Lanoye (thanks to their common translator, Alain van Crugten). That was before Sprakeloos, and Lanoye was unknown among the French-speaking public. I love the way they scramble around in the garbage of daily existence – trivial, vulgar – and yet use very poetic language to touch on the metaphysical, the existential and the essence.

Why Dernier lit? It’s a short, unknown story. 
It’s a confusing link with the death of Claus. Dernier lit tells the story of a self-chosen and programmed death. For obvious reasons there are also major differences with the death of Claus. This short story stands for Claus’ world, but told in a nutshell. It is the story of a passion that can’t find its place in society and is pushed out. A strong theatrical concentration of sharp feelings and death wish. A published drama that is cut up into puzzle pieces, a new composition, as if for an investigation by the vice squad. A fragmented tale that is both pure and full of scandal, a mixture of cruel humour and tragic melancholy. Now that I’ve read it, I don’t think Claus could have written it without a stage version in mind. I may be wrong, but I’m very glad nobody got to it before I did!


Image: © Gilles-Ivan Frankignoul