Dimitri de Clercq’s debut feature is an absorbing and stylistically alluring psychological thriller set on a desolate stretch of the Sahara.
It tells the story of Dafne (Delfine Bafort), a woman who loses her memory following a mysterious car accident. Rescued and taken in by Jake (Svetozar Cvetković), a reclusive architect who claims to be her husband, Dafne must search for herself as doubts grow about her true past.
In this in-depth interview with Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge, Dimitri opens up about the making of the film and his sources of inspiration.
Q: I was interested to read that Delfine Bafort was your starting point for the film. Can you tell us more about this and how she inspired you?
A: The first time I met Delfine in Morocco, while producing another film, I was totally mesmerized by her. I felt she was a force of life. In a strange way, she made me long for Belgium. You see, I’m Flemish, like Delfine. We were both born in Ghent, which we realised afterwards, but I mainly grew up in the Middle East.
In any case, that first moment when I saw her on a Moroccan beach, wearing that striking red dress, she made me feel a sudden longing for Belgium, as if she were its very incarnation. At that moment, I knew that if ever I were to make a feature film, it would be with her, and for her. The red dress she was wearing that day is the same red dress she is wearing at the beginning of You Go To My Head.
Q: How did you set about constructing a story around Delfine?
A: The film’s original story, and all its various drafts, were written with Delfine in mind, as well as the many Moroccan locations I’m so drawn to.
To start with, I told Delfine I wanted to make a feature film and asked if she would play the lead role. She agreed under one condition: that she would be given a screenplay. The film we were shooting at the time was made without a script, and while Delfine found that to be an interesting experience, it was important for her to have more structure in her next film.
Then a close friend, Matt Steigbigel, and I developed the original story and wrote a first draft of the script. This early version was more graphically violent than the script we used for the film, with some scenes even reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s movies, especially his masterpiece Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. I’ve always been fascinated by Peckinpah’s blood poetry. And finally, I collaborated in Paris with two co-writers, Rosemary Ricchio and Pierre Bourdy. Basically, we worked on further drafts and completed the shooting script of the film.
In hindsight, I realised, quite recently, that the way I approached the writing, but also the creation of the film, had a lot to do with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In Vertigo, a man brings back the memory of a woman he loves. The making of You Go To My Head, in many ways, was a similar attempt to bring back an illusion. I created a film for Delfine to bring my feelings for her to life.
Q: The film reminds me of Vifill Prunner’s ‘I Am Here’ in some ways. Why were you drawn to making a psychological thriller and the uncomfortable idea of a love story based on a lie?
A: I haven’t seen Vifill Prunner’s film, but looked at the trailer. It definitely makes me want to see the film.
As I said earlier, I was drawn to and inspired by Peckinpah’s nihilist poetry. His films are often politically incorrect. They have this kind of moral ambiguity. I also knew that I would have a limited budget to work with, as well as available locations, so the psychological thriller genre seemed like the best option. Thrillers and love stories don’t require a lot of special effects.
I was inspired, too, by many of the American maverick filmmakers I grew up with, again Sam Peckinpah, but also Samuel Fuller, Dennis Hopper and, of course, Orson Welles. They all made really great psychological thrillers with limited means.
Q: Delfine was the starting point of the film, but Svetozar Cvetković plays the other lead role. What were you looking for in the character of Jake?
A: I was looking to make a film that had a gripping, unsettling, and morally questionable starting point. Films have become very safe, and I’m a little tired of this environment where people are afraid to express certain ideas, things, even words, because of how people will react.
I wanted to create a film, then, that wouldn’t be limited in that way. To me, it’s always riveting when you have characters that are morally ambiguous, or faced with a strong moral conflict, and then do something which is morally questionable. Jake’s original act in You Go To My Head is like a pack of dynamite, charged. What do you make of a man who finds a woman who is amnesiac, vulnerable, and then tells her he is her husband? It sets a fascinating dilemma in motion.
Of course, Jake is, in many ways, my double. And Svetozar very much understood this early on in the shooting of the picture. In one of the Fobe House scenes with the two of them under blankets in the morning, I remember him looking at me looking at them. And then smiling in between takes and saying to Delfine, “you know there are actually three of us in this bed.”
Q: How did these two actors connect and what did they bring to the project?
A: The two were different to work with because Svetozar was often the best in the first two takes, and Delfine was often the strongest in her fourth or fifth take. This makes things hard because you have to find the best of both.
I feel incredibly lucky to have found Delfine, and then Svetozar just a few weeks before the start of the shoot. He’s kind of a miracle, you know. Svetozar was very taken by the script and immediately committed to playing the role of Jake. He joined with great enthusiasm and passion. You Go To My Head wouldn’t have been possible without both actors and their dedication to the picture.
When I first saw them interact, it was clear that there was an interesting and powerful chemistry between them. I think Delfine brought a lot of mystery and depth to the role of Daphne/Kitty, while Svetozar brought a lot of humanity and layers to Jake.
Once Jake sets this thing in motion, it’s not an easy role to play because he easily could have appeared like a pervert, which he didn’t. That’s what a lot of women who have seen the film tell me. In fact, for me, I’ve always believed that cinema is made to immortalize women. This is what I set out to do in this film.
Q: The film is set on a desolate stretch of the Sahara. Can you talk about why you are drawn to the desert and the impact this setting has on the film?
A: The desert was key in inspiring me to make this film. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the desert. I have memories of growing up in Saudi Arabia, playing in Turkish, wrecked trains derailed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and the local Bedouin tribes. The immensity of the desert and its sepia-hued tones inspire me, like a blank canvas on to which you can project any story or world.
As a producer, I also made several award-winning films set in desolate environments, including Afghan writer-director, Atiq Ramini’s Earth and Ashes (2005) and Iraqi director, Mohamed Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon (2009). The desert environment was very present in these films, too.
Q: From what I have seen, the visuals of the film are stunning. Why did you and DOP Stijn Grupping make the decision to work exclusively with natural light? Also, what challenges and joys did that bring?
A: I had already collaborated with Stijn Grupping, the film’sdirector of photography, on a previous film production in Morocco. So, we knew all the locations well, and how to best capture the beauty of the Moroccan landscapes, especially the light. Stijn has an intimate relationship with natural light, or what I call the light of God. Not a single artificial light was used in the making of the movie. And, most of the film’s scenes were shot at dawn/dusk, what I like to call the Malick hour.
This approach allowed us to be burdened as little as possible by film techniques and equipment. It also permitted us to shoot with a very small crew which, in turn, gave us more time to shoot.
Q: Did you have a favourite shot or scene from the film?
A: I have a lot. I don’t really want to call it my ‘favourite’, but there is one shot that has a lot of emotional meaning for me, one in which I appear.
In the scene, towards the end of the film, Kitty leaves the hotel and crosses a stranger who seems to recognise her. In the screenplay, it was just described as her leaving the hotel. However, on the day of the shoot, I decided to add myself into the shot. For me, the scene represents the filmmaker looking at his muse escaping him. Or, the filmmaker accepting to let go. I often consider this scene to be the ‘heart’ of the film. The location and the doorway of the hotel in this scene also reminded me of the iconic opening and closing of John Ford’s The Searchers.
Of course, there are many shots, too, which I loved, and that ended up on Tobias Beul’s editing floor. And there is also a scene that meant a great deal to me, one we couldn’t shoot due to practical mishaps. I still see it in the film even though it’s not there. It was a scene I wanted to shoot underwater with Delfine, naked in the Fobe House pool, holding herself in a fetal position.
Q: Michael Klug over at Horror Freak News says the score is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s work and commented on the monolith structures of the house. What influences can be felt through the film?
A: Sometimes a space, or a location, will call up a film or a filmmaker. In a way, it’s impossible to shoot today in sand dunes without thinking of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. So, when I was shooting in the dunes, of course this made me think of some scenes in that film.
Just as the three white monolith structures of the Fobe House reminded me of the iconic black monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I incorporated this reference through the way that Delfine approaches and touches the monolith. I didn’t create this element to reference a film or filmmaker. Rather, the presence of this element in the architectural landscape made me conscious of the symbol. Spaces, I firmly believe, have a collective memory. There really are few conscious references in the film, as well as some unconscious ones, which I only realised while completing the film. There’s a cut, for instance, which comes from a specific edit in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon.
There are references to other films in the score, too. When Hacène Larbi composed the music for You Go To My Head, some of the scenes led him to incorporate musical ‘quotes’ or references to other film scores. For example, there’s a moment where he makes a very subtle reference to Vertigo.
Q: I have heard fantastic things about the film and you mentioned earlier the response some women to it. Can you expand on the reactions you have received to the film so far from the audiences?
A: On the whole, reactions from audiences have been very positive. It’s fascinating, too, to see how women and men receive and perceive the film differently.
The #MeToo movement began just as we were starting to show the film at festivals. I was worried (because of what Jake does at the start of the film) the film could be misconstrued, when in fact, most women have been quite taken with it, especially with the evolution of Kitty, who gradually takes control – I’ll let you discover how.
At the same time, many women were very moved by Jake and how his character evolves in the film. In the beginning, one could see him as almost a sinister, perverted character, and by the end of the film, well, you’ll find out.
It’s true, we had great reactions from the public at festivals, especially in Egypt and in India. To me, this was very moving because it showed that this very personal story was,in a way, universal, and touched other cultures, too.
Q: You started as a producer working with directors such as Mathieu Kassovitz, Raúl Ruiz and Ray Müller. What valuable lessons did you learn from those years that helped you as a director?
A: When I went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, my desire was to make films. But then, when I got out of school, one thing led to another; I met filmmakers, directors, and ended up accompanying them in giving life to their dreams. That’s what a producer does.
But then came a time when the director’s dream would often turn into a producer’s nightmare. That’s when I realised it was time for me to go back to my first passion: making film, giving life to my own dream, reconciling the dream and the nightmare.
In terms of valuable lessons learned, I’d say I’ve taken wisdom away from all the directors I’ve worked with, but the filmmaker that made me think the most about cinema is Leni Riefenstahl. I met her while producing the International Emmy award-winning documentary about her, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.
Sometimes you meet people that really open up doors and make you think about the essence of cinema, the craft. That’s what she did for me. She was a true visionary filmmaker. She also raises a lot of ethical questions. To me, of all the filmmakers I’ve met, she’s probably the one that made the greatest impression on me. She had a profound understanding of the way films are crafted.
She’s also one of those rare filmmakers who contributed to developing the syntax of cinema. I learned a lot from sitting down with her in her basement. We watched her films on an editing table as she explained editing, rhythm, the musicality of films.
Q: How did you find the overall experience of making ‘You Go To My Head’? Any fond or fun memories you can share?
A: One of the major challenges was shooting the film with a very small crew. The key crew basically was comprised offour people (Stijn Grupping – the DOP, Boris De Visscher– the assistant cameraman, Novica ‘Noni’ Jankov – the sound recordist, Zoran Prodanović – the boom operator). This meant that everyone had to wear different hats they usually wouldn’t have had to wear. The sound person had to put the blood on Delfine, for example.
Shooting, overall, was an intense ‘human’ experience. When you shoot with a very small crew, everyone feels extremely invested in the film’s creative process and outcome. However, sometimes small problems can take on big proportions simply because everyone gets involved.
I have many fun memories of making the film, both of the filming and of the overall post-production process with editor, Tobias Beul, and executive producer, Thomas Gottschall. It’s really thanks to Thomas that we were able to finish the film in the best possible conditions. He made miracles happen. Colour grading the picture at ARRI Media in Münich with lead colourist Traudl Nicholson and Stijn Grupping was magical.
As far as fun memories go, the crew often teased me about my ‘film Taj Mahal’ for Delfine, for example, when we filmed the doorway shot I described earlier. Delfine was curious to see what the take looked like, so she came over to see it, too. Just then, the sound recordist, Novica Jankov (everyone calls him Noni) said: “Oh Dimitri, I think I have the perfect music for this scene.” And then, as we began playing the scene on the video monitor, Noni started the music. It was The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Delfine was stonefaced, trying to remain concentrated on the monitor, while I glared at Noni. That’s Serbian humour for you.
Q: What is next for you? Can you share any ambitions or projects?
A: The film is still screening around the world in festivals.We’ve been in more than forty, so far. We’re also preparing the Serbian release of the film in cinemas this coming December 13th. The Serbian distributor, Igor Stanković, will host the premier in Belgrade in an incredible historic building that he recently renovated and turned into a multiplex.
We’re also looking forward to the upcoming North American release by New-York based distributor, First Run Features.
As for my future, I’m currently working on various film projects, and one, in particular, that I’d like to film in the USA. I can’t tell you what the movie is about, but it’s a film that appeared to me one day in its entirety, like a flash: its story, structure, form, characters, settings, everything. I just saw it – boom. If I can make the film I have in my head, it will be darker, a quite challenging subject… I now realide that there are bridges between this new film idea and You Go To My Head; sometimes, things aren’t what they seem.