New Flemish film brings humour to darkness
Actor Jurgen Delnaet talks about his role in Geoffrey Enthoven’s offbeat new movie, Halfweg
Twist in the tale
“We had the luxury of rehearsing in the house before starting the shoot,” Delnaet recalls. “That helped, being in the house for a week with no crew. An empty, cold house. And you think: So this is the house where that guy lived, without his wife, with his daughter but not being able to talk about his feelings. And then this other character comes in...”
The twist in this tale is that Theo is a ghost, bound to the property after dying in the bath several years before. Maybe it was an accident, maybe suicide. Either way, he is not about to give up his home and he sets about persuading Stef to leave by complicating his already messy personal life. Stef is having none of it and fights back.
Delnaet was attracted by the prospect of working with Enthoven, whose trademark in films such as Hasta La Vista and Meisjes (Girls) has been the offbeat treatment of sensitive subjects. “My character’s story is very dark, but I knew Geoffrey’s work and I knew that it wouldn’t be some kind of dreary Swedish story. There would also be humour in it, and that’s the type of story I want to tell as well.”
The part involves both a complex father-daughter relationship and the notion of a man with regrets about his life who is able to go back and make good. “I think that’s a recognisable wish for people, a very deep human need.”
Ghost in the bathroom
One touchstone for Delnaet’s performance was the experience of spending time with his father during the last months of his life. “What struck me most was his melancholy on realising that this was it, and it was only this,” he recalls. “He didn’t feel any remorse about not having done things in his life, just a deep, deep sadness. He showed that to me, and that was very important because he wasn’t the most emotional guy during his lifetime. It was one of the images that ran through my mind during the making of this film.”
He didn’t feel any remorse about not having done things in his life, just a deep, deep sadness
Drawing on life in this way is not exactly a question of technique. “I would like to say that I decide when to use private things, but it always happens,” Delnaet explains. “When you read a script for the first time, you are open and you let all these influences and images pass through your mind.”
And although he is happy to discuss this now, it wasn’t something he talked about during the shoot. “I need this personal reflection and imagery to make it true for myself.”
A more tangible factor in shaping Theo’s character was his costume. The initial idea was for this to be slightly dated, reflecting the years that had passed since he died. But then Enthoven had the bright idea that a man who died in the bath would come back as a bathroom ghost. So Theo appears throughout Halfway in boxer shorts, with wet hair and a bath towel around his shoulders.
“If you are true to your work as an actor you are always exposed, that’s my opinion,” says Delnaet. “But this helps you because it limits you. You only have these clothes on, so it gives you more freedom to act. You can’t hide behind the costume.”
“Heavy but funny”
Delnaet is a theatre actor whose big break in cinema came with the 2008 film Aanrijding in Moscou (Moscow, Belgium). This gentle romantic comedy set in a Ghent suburb was an unexpected success across Flanders and abroad, but when the offers started to come in he found he was already committed to stage work several years ahead.
In the end he had to make a conscious decision to clear his diary. “My agent told me: You have to dare to wait. So I waited.” Four months passed, during which he became increasingly nervous about having no work. Then came the call from Enthoven and the offer of a TV series. “All of a sudden there are these two beautiful parts!”
The series is Marsman, in which he plays a man who loses his mother, his job and his wife in a short period of time and is left to look after his autistic adult brother. “So it’s heavy, but funny.” This will be broadcast on Eén from March.
In the meantime, Delnaet is rehearsing in a stage production of Peter Handke’s satire of corporate life De Laatsten der onverstandigen (They Are Dying Out). It premieres on March 13 at Monty in Antwerp and then tours Flanders and the Netherlands until mid-May.
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