Belgium (2014) Dir. Fabrice Du Welz
For his fourth film, Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz has chosen to add to the many inspired by the real life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers of the late 1940’s, murderous husband and wife Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck.
Alléluia is the tale of hard working single mum nurse Gloria (Lola Dueñas), who is urged by her friends to try online dating to find a man, with shoe salesman Michel (Laurent Lucas) being the one lined up for a date. They get on like the proverbial house on fire and Michel spends the night, making Gloria the happiest and most fulfilled she has been in eons; so enamoured is she that when Michel sells her a sob story about how he is desperate for money Gloria happily hands over some ready cash.
However Gloria learns that Michel was playing her for a fool and catches him already stalking his next prey. But instead of castrating him, Gloria offers to join Michel in his fraudulent money making schemes, dumping her daughter on a friend and adopting a number of different personae to do her bit in the con. But Gloria’s unhinged jealousy overwhelms her and jeopardises their plans when she starts to kill off any woman Michel gets too comfortable with.
A more direct adaptation of the Beck/Fernandez story was made in 1969 as The Honeymoon Killers and whilst I have not seen this film, I am sure Du Welz’s film differs significantly enough to not be considered a loose remake. The silent unnerving atmosphere which Du Welz created in his previous films Vinyan and Calvaire is once again used to great effect, possibly more so later on as the first act does nothing to suggest this is a gruesome chiller in the making.
Where this film differs from Du Welz’s previous outings is in the pacing; the lingering shots and drawn out scenes of emptiness are all but absent, instead the story takes off pretty much from the onset and we have a rough idea of where we are going inside the first ten minutes. But, as mentioned earlier, this isn’t the case and certainly doesn’t prepare us for what is going to happen and probably just as well, as the descent into psychological and physical horror is startling one.
Quite how Gloria becomes so obsessive towards Michel isn’t really explained, although it may have something to do with the bizarre pre-date ritual he performs the night before. Whatever it is, it works judging by the extended period of post coital euphoria Gloria enjoys, forgiving Michel and becoming his new partner in crime.
Their first victim is slightly portly but wealthy widow Marguerite (Edith le Merdy), who Michel marries to get close to her bank balance. Unfortunately Gloria, the recently single “sister”, can’t control her jealousy and launches into a violent rage whenever the newlyweds get close to each other.
After this sudden and fatal act of physical violence Du Welz throws in a little surreal coda of Gloria singing to camera before hacking up Marguerite’s corpse! Maybe this was to demonstrate just how unhinged Gloria had become or perhaps it was to add a little black levity to remind us not to take it all too seriously.
The problem is that the gritty, hand held camera work and intimate mise-en-scene doesn’t lend itself to comedy – the foreboding chilly atmosphere and unrepentant attitudes of our coning couple certainly don’t either.
A few other surreal touches are thrown in after the first two cons – the second involves scamming a rich Catholic woman (Anne-Marie Loop) but these serve the purpose of illustrating the strengthening of the bond between Gloria and Michel and in many ways the increasing decadence of their mendacious and pernicious lifestyle.
The naked dance around the bonfire is a nicely shot and rather poetic symbol of this while the nightmarish hallucinations Gloria experiences during the third scam (after Michel is forced to drug her) are downright creepy.
Du Welz deftly shifts the onus of the dangerous antagonist away from Michel and onto Gloria without compromising the former’s already tainted character or making him suddenly sympathetic. Since he seduced Gloria, one can argue that Michel pretty much created this monster which, by the time they meet their last widow Solange (Helena Noguerra) and her young daughter Eve, even he cannot control with his love and attention. The drastic measures he employs backfires and the result is a tragedy that is completely out of his hands.
A long time muse of Pedro Almodóvar, Lola Dueñas is nothing short of certifiably convincing as Gloria, taking this woman from an industrious nurse and mother to the realms of mindless devotion and unfettered lunacy. Exuding a feral sex appeal with a childish temperament Dueñas charts this mental downward spiral through her physical presence as much as her edgy displays of emotional fragility, transforming into a Jekyll and Hyde like character with a simple widening of her eyes.
It is arguably one of the darkest and most raw performances Dueñas has committed to screen thus far, which is very much to the benefit of this film. Somewhat in her shadow, Laurent Lucas, having already worked with Du Welz before in Calvaire, is suitably slimy as Michel, revelling in his prurient lifestyle with little concern for the direction his moral compass is pointing towards. When Gloria start to go nuts Lucas deftly handles the change in Michel in order to keep his place as the loathsome lothario in the audiences mind.
Alléluia shows a maturity and confidence in Du Welz’s direction, reaffirming his strengths in low key, no finesse filmmaking with palpable atmospherics. The original tale of the Lonely Hearts Killers meant he didn’t have to stray too far from his own style of unnerving chills while affording him the chance to tell a tale without the supernatural bent of his previous works.
Bold, brutal and bloody, this is easily Du Welz’s best work to date for sure.