Van Dormael’s innovative style got him noticed early on. His first short film, Maedeli la Brèche, which he wrote during his final year at the renowned INSAS in Brussels, earned him the Student Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1981. After postponing his feature debut for ten years after graduation – focusing on documentaries and short films in the meantime – Toto le Héros (1991) proved well worth the wait. In the film, French art house veteran Michel Bouquet plays an old man in a nursing home, thinking back on a rather mundane life which, to his subjective recollection, should have been a different one; that of Alfred the neighbor boy to be more exact. A complicated series of flashbacks and ellipses – well-known ploys in the cinema of Van Dormael – weave together to show us stages in the life of Thomas, or Toto as he likes to be called.
It is revealed that from an early age, young Toto is utterly convinced of the fact that he and Alfred, son of the rich Mr. and Mrs. Kant next door, were switched at birth in a hospital fire. Although his mom dryly tells him there never was a fire, Thomas will remain consumed by jealousy of Alfred for the rest of his life. With Toto, Van Dormael shows a knack for combining tragedy with smile-inducing fantasy. The world of the boy who grows up full of resentment – believing his rightful destiny was taken from him – is also a world of vibrant colors, and of tulips in a flowerbed dancing in unison to the tune of a French chanson. Toto was Van Dormael’s first ticket to the prestigious Cannes festival, with two others to follow (adding up to an impressing batting average of three out of four).
Despite its effortless feel, the director needed five years to write the screenplay for Toto. It would take another five for his next picture to see the light of day. The Eighth Day (1996) is the story of the uncanny friendship that forms between Harry (Daniel Auteuil), a stressed corporate stooge and Georges (Pascal Duquenne), a careless patient with Down syndrome. Somewhat predictably, Georges ends up teaching Harry the values of a life simplified, yet richer in love. The accessible sentimentality of this unusual pairing might seem like an easy way to tug at our heartstrings at first; in giving us a glimpse of Georges’ literal view of the world however, Van Dormael displays a visual flair and idiosyncratic sense of humor that is unmatched. Any sense of conventionality goes out the window when the director again uses a childlike perspective in shaping a wondrous world of dream sequences and fantasies – one in which Georges can walk on water, and where grass needs to be comforted after you cut it. Leading actors Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne shared the Cannes prize for Best Actor for their portrayal of this endearing friendship.
If an inclination towards parallel realities was present in Van Dormael’s work during the nineties, Mr. Nobody (2009) is the penultimate manifestation of this. Designed to be his pièce de résistance, the writer-director took ten years to prepare his English language debut. Ambitious to a fault, Mr. Nobody plays like an incredibly complex Choose Your Own Adventure story. As 118-year-old Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) tries to relate his life story to a journalist in 2092, different iterations of it keep popping up. What would have happened, for example, if Nemo had chosen to stay with his mother instead of his father after their divorce, or had he chosen this one girl over another? We explore different possible renditions of his life, resulting in a complicated web of stories and utter bewilderment as to which version of facts contains the truth. ‘You choose, you lose,’ the film seems to say. So Van Dormael doesn’t choose. Themes of choice, memory, coincidence, fate, time and recurrences of the butterfly effect kind are all tackled with gusto. It’s a little much for some as it turns out. Mr. Nobody doesn’t make it to Cannes like the rest of his films did, although it developed quite a big following in Europe.
There seem to be no limits to Van Dormael’s imagination, as his worlds keeps growing in scale and complexity. And what is grander or more complex than the Almighty himself? In his latest creative tour de force, Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament) (2015), Van Dormael portrays God living in a crappy apartment in Brussels along with a subservient wife and feisty daughter, Ea. More demonic than holy, the reprehensible deity fills his days thinking up annoying laws of nature to make his subjects suffer – once a naked body is lowered into a tub full of water, for example, the phone will inevitably ring. Ea, however, has had enough of her dad’s cruel barbs towards humanity and escapes after having texted everyone on earth their dates of death. In search of six apostles to help her create a new testament, Ea runs into the most peculiar figures.
Its delightfully absurd tone and rewarding comedic premise make The Brand New Testament Van Dormael’s most lighthearted movie up to date, earning him a standing ovation at Cannes. The festival audience clearly wasn’t bothered by the fact we don’t get a clue as to what will happen to Ea and her companions after the screen fades to black. That’s what’s to be expected, after all. To walk out of the theater after a Van Dormael film is to wonder what will become of the characters we just spent two hours with, or even to second-guess the things we thought we witnessed. His philosophy above all remains a questioning one. In the words of Nemo Nobody: ‘As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.’ Van Dormael’s work refuses to give us answers or the certainty we keep looking for, much like life itself. In this way, the auteur‘s fantastical creations turn out to be more realistic than any other story tied up neatly in a bow.