Cinema meets performance art in new Flemish film


The result of a collaboration between director Benny Vandendriessche and artist Dirk Hendrikx, the new film Drift pushes and tugs at the edges of cinema

“Going into nothingness”

Grief is a difficult emotion to capture on screen, but Flemish film Drift succeeds through an inspired combination of narrative cinema and performance art. The result is a moving tale of lost love, in which a man tries to escape a painful reality by disappearing into the landscape.

Drift, which releases in cinemas tomorrow, is a collaboration between director Benny Vandendriessche and artist Dirk Hendrikx. Since the early 1990s, Hendrikx has been working in the area where installation, film and performance art overlap. Whether on stage, in a studio or outdoors, his ideas always involve some physical interaction between himself and his surroundings.

“I never saw myself as a performer, a dancer or an actor,” says Hendrikx. “For me it was more like going into a trance, into a feeling or a situation. It was like I was making living sculptures.”

It was the physical side of Hendrikx’s work that appealed to Vandendriessche, whose background is in music videos and advertising. “We always had the same tastes,” he explains. “Something very simple, something physically rough, but at the same time very poetic and very beautiful.”

Having decided to work together, the challenge was to bring the abstract beauty of Hendrikx’s performances into the more accessible format of a feature film. So Vandendriessche started to build a story around a recurring figure he discerned in Hendrikx’s work, a drifter creating rituals in a landscape.

An important catalyst was the discovery of a filmed dance performance, rather like a fragment of silent film, in Hendrikx’s archives. “It’s very beautiful because everything about love, the pushing and pulling, is already there,” says Vandendriessche. 

A parallel reality

They cast the other dancer, Lieve Meeussen, as the drifter’s lost love and used fragments of the archive film as back-story. “It is 13 years old, but it involves the same people. You see how their bodies have changed, but also the intimacy in the dance makes it very real.” 

We were looking for the poetic, the exaggerated, maybe even the grotesque in reality

- Benny Vandendriessche

This intimacy is reflected in the first part of the narrative, which appears in flashback throughout the film. The man and his partner, who is suffering from a long illness, are waiting in a snowbound hospital. But from the outset we know that something has gone awry and that the man has fled, pursued by the police.

“He escapes into a parallel reality,” Vandendriessche explains. “This gave us a lot of freedom. We could choose any kind of landscape. It didn’t have to be a perfect description of a country. It could be very peculiar, but at the same time we didn’t want it to be staged. It had to seem real. We were looking for the poetic, the exaggerated, maybe even the grotesque, in reality.”

This is where Hendrikx’s rituals come in. He describes the process as going on a trip. The actions that emerge, such as trying to force his head into the ground or balancing a heavy stone over his eyes, are instinctive. But he doesn’t like to talk about where these gestures come from or what they mean. “We decided to go beyond the symbols into nothingness, and to not explain,” he says. “Whatever you see, it’s up to you.”

Vandendriessche disagrees slightly: “What he does is not easy. It’s painful. It creates a tension in the body and scars the body, but at the same time it’s very beautiful. It deals with the ambiguity between beauty and pain.”

While the gestures are not explained, they still need to touch something inside the viewer. “They seem to refer to something familiar to us, even if we don’t know where it comes from. This is an exaggeration of a state of being that maybe we recognise.”

Throughout the shoot, which took place in Romania, they stayed true to the idea of recording whatever these “trips” produced. Yet it was not until they started to edit the images together that they knew their film was in the bag. In fact, the silent storytelling worked so well that they discarded dialogue intended to explain explicitly what was going on.

“We’ve tried to create a film that delivers an experience, like a tactile experience,” Vandendriessche says. “We tried to create a kind of intrigue, a reality that suggests much more than it explains.”

The result of a collaboration between director Benny Vandendriessche and artist Dirk Hendrikx, the new film Drift pushes and tugs at the edges of cinema.

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