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A few recent Belgian films, all of them quite dark, have created a stir in the United States. Like 1992’s celebrated Man Bites Dog, Dominique Deruddere’s Oscar-nominated Everybody’s Famous! concerns the media’s collusion with bad behavior. Deruddere’s film is much lighter than its forerunner, however. Whereas Man Bites Dog follows a film crew that’s following a murdererand ultimately becomes implicated in his crimesEverybody’s Famous! is a gently satirical tale of a factory worker who kidnaps a popular singer in hopes of making his pudgy teenage daughter a star. Deruddere’s film also diverges from other Belgian cinematic imports in another way: It’s in Flemish.
Both French and Flemish are official languages of Belgium, but the former tends to dominate. “There are four or five, maybe six [Flemish] films in a good year,” says Deruddere, a slight, bald, extremely good-natured man who’s a little embarrassed to still be wearing makeup from a TV taping. “It is a handicap making films in Flemish.
“If you have a foreign film,” he explains, “you need an important film festival that will launch it. There’s only one important film festival. It’s Cannes. Cannes will take maybe one film out of Belgium. But of course it will be a French film. So it’s very difficult.
“I like this bilingual thing,” Deruddere says. “It creates a surrealistic feeling about Belgium. Belgium, what is Belgium? It’s a created country. Somebody in Brussels kicks out the Dutch, and then all of a sudden someone says, ‘We’ll have to create a country here. And we’ll get a German to play king. And that’s Belgium.’ It has its advantages. We’re people who see the humor of it all. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Because so few people speak Flemish, the director admits, “It’s not a language that’s going to help you. So for us to learn French is more appropriate, because at least it’s an international language. It’s very common to speak to someone in Frenchand after 15 minutes we’ll figure out that both of us are Flemish.”
When Everybody’s Famous! was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Deruddere was invited to appear on a French-language Belgian TV show. “It turned out that nobody in the French-language territories knew that a Belgian film was nominated. Only the Flemish knew it. The French-language minister of culture was so upset when he saw this on TV that he invited me to come talk to him and see what could be done. It was, in a way, shocking to realize that this country is still so much culturally divided.”
The nomination made him “a local hero for a while,” Deruddere notes. “Because it doesn’t happen very often. This is the fifth time it’s happened. We’ve never won.” Characteristically, he then deflates his moment of glory. “The good thing this year was that we were sure not to win. So we didn’t worry too much about it.”
The director has made films in French, as well as in English, although none of these really clicked. His first feature1987’s Love Is a Dog From Hell, based on stories by Charles Bukowskigot a very limited American release. Two subsequent films, 1989’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini and 1995’s Suite 16, had the misfortune of being affiliated with American companies on the brink of bankruptcy: American Zoetrope and Orion, respectively. Both failed to open in the United States.
“The fun was lost. No more fun doing this job,” Deruddere says with a chuckle that suggests he always manages to have at least some fun. “So I said, ‘Let’s forget about it all. I’ll just work with a couple of friends.’ And that sort of opened the door for this movie.”
The premise was inspired by a phenomenon quite familiar to Americans: The vogue for “reality” and amateur-hour shows that promise to make just about everybody a celebrity.
“People these days want to become famous and think that they don’t need a talent anymore,” Deruddere marvels. “People want a shortcut. There are so many people who are famous in Belgium, and really they don’t know why they’re famous. Something happened. Maybe she showed her tits at the right moment. This situation is funny, and it’s dangerous at the same time. Because many young people now have fame as their goal, and the important thing is being missed. The important thing is to have a passion, and then maybe you can become famous.”
The filmmaker modeled Debbie, the successful teen-pop singer who’s kidnapped, “on a specific girl who was discovered at 14, a Flemish-singing girl. She had this weird relationship with her manager. He was very dominating, and people behind the scenes knew what was really going on. She always tried to cut loose.”
Deruddere believes that “everything that happens in this film could really happen in Belgium. And some of the things are really happening, like the imitation shows. They are big in Belgium. And to kidnap the No. 1 singer in Belgium is absolutely possible. It’s not like Madonna. Madonna would have three or four bodyguards.”
In Everybody’s Famous!, aspiring teenage singer Marva performs at these imitation shows, fruitlessly emulating French pop star Vanessa Paradis. She’s upstaged by a man who does Otis Reddingin blackface. The singer who imitates Redding really does work the Belgian impersonators’ circuit. “It’s actually his voice,” Deruddere says. “He does a great Otis Redding. He won the national show two years ago. I wanted somebody really good in there. I wanted not to make fun of people who have some talent. If you’re a factory worker or whatever, and you sing a great Otis Redding, why not show it? That’s OK.”
The director is surprised to hear that blackface is considered tasteless in the United States. “Really? You have to look like the character, and if you’re white, there’s only one thing you can do. You can only win if you resemble the singer as closely as possible. That’s why it’s so stupid of [Marva] to do Vanessa Paradis. Vanessa Paradis is very thin.”
Deruddere borrowed a bit of Marva’s character from the actress who plays her, Eva van der Gucht. Marva sings well when she’s hidden from view, providing the voice for a puppet, but tightens up when the spotlight is on her. “This actually really happened when I was auditioning her. I asked her if she can sing, and she said. ‘Yes, but only when you don’t look at me.’ I said, ‘What you do mean?’ She said, ‘I’m so ashamed of my body that I cannot put expression in my voice. But if I can stand behind a door, it will be OK.’ And she sang beautifully behind the door. It’s a great moment, so I put it in the film.”
The filmmaker admits to being a bad performer himself. “Many friends of mine are musicians,” he reveals. “I’m sort of a frustrated musician. I even used to sing in a band. It was a very bad band. Still, we become almost successful, in the sense that somebody asked us to do a record. We said, ‘Are you crazy? This was just for fun.’ So we split.”
Music will also drive Deruddere’s planned next film, a biopic about Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Brel, of course, sang in French.
“Oh, yes. The film will be in French.” Deruddere laughs. “So this time if I get an Oscar nomination, the Flemish won’t know.” Mark Jenkins