Speechless: Intimate mother-son portrait tells a universal story


The performance at the centre of the film adaptation of Tom Lanoye’s best-selling novel Sprakeloos offers heart-breaking moments. And the project left its mark on lead actor Viviane De Muynck

Beyond words

In 2009, Tom Lanoye, one of Flanders’ most important contemporary authors, published his magnum opus, Sprakeloos (Speechless). It was an homage to his mother, who lost her ability to speak following a stroke.

It’s now been turned into a film by actor and director Hilde Van Mieghem (Smoorverliefd). At the heart of the film, which opens this week, lies an unrivalled performance by veteran actor Viviane De Muynck.

Born in 1946, De Muynck has a great track record. She has been central to countless theatre pieces and has seen her fair share of film roles. But she’s had to wait until now to get such a meaty part.

“It’s an intimate portrait, and I was completely tantalised by the story,” she says, the day after seeing the completed film for the first time. “There are several moments where I was overwhelmed by emotion.”

Mother and son

Van Mieghem didn’t have much convincing to do to get De Muynck (pictured) to play the role of Josée, the mother. “I knew she had been trying for years to set this film up, and when she asked me, I didn’t hesitate,” she says. “I love the book, and I also deeply respect Hilde. I’m convinced that the film clearly benefited from having a female director. She has a specific interest in the relationship between mother and son.”

The power of the story is that it’s universal, says De Muynck. “A lot of people have known someone who languished at the end of their life and wasn’t able to help themselves anymore,” she says. And she could draw on her own experiences, as her father needed care towards the end of his life.

Of course, at one point you also think: What if it happens to me?

- Actor Viviane De Muynck

Looking for a nursing home, she discovered some that were really terrible, places where she wouldn’t leave her worst enemy. “Luckily, in the end, my quest turned out well. The most difficult thing for a child is to realise your parents are no longer the strong people you once adored.”

She adds with some hesitation: “Of course, at one point you also think: What if it happens to me? To be completely dependent, not knowing where you are anymore. It’s a fear lots of people have. Since playing this character, I’ve been thinking about this much more than before.”

Lanoye’s novel, while a work of fiction, is also an undisguised autobiography. But De Muynck didn’t feel the need to talk to Lanoye about his mother. “We chatted about the book, but I wasn’t particularly curious about her,” she says. “I didn’t want to make the mistake of trying to identify myself with someone who isn’t here anymore to talk about herself. I tried to construct the character from what I have in me.”

Finding meaning

Still, after a first reading of the screenplay with people from Sint-Niklaas who knew Josée, some told her that it was as if they were seeing her resurrected. “At the time I wasn’t wearing make-up, wig or costume. It reassured me that I was doing the right thing.”

Acting is, of course, a form of communication. When you have to communicate that you’re not able to communicate anymore, it’s twice as hard. De Muynck: “It’s the ultimate fear for an actor – not being able to say the words you need to. Josée is a woman who is trying desperately to communicate. It was very important for me as an actor to know what she was trying to express.”

So, when the screenplay reads “Josée babbling”, De Muynck didn’t just utter any old meaningless words. She is actually trying to say some very concrete sentences. “Hilde was a great help in finding what that would be. I think those moments also add some lightness to a heavy story.”

Just playing an emotion isn’t enough. I had to dig deep into myself to really live the emotions

- Viviane De Muynck

It’s the kind of character, she says, that you can’t shake off when you leave the set. Josée stayed with her the whole time they were shooting the film.

“We’re talking about a short but very intense period of work. I couldn’t go home cheerfully when the next day I needed to return to that hell,” she says. “The character stayed in my head and my body. Going to a party while we were shooting, for instance, was out of the question.”

That shouldn’t come as a surprise, she says. “Just playing an emotion isn’t enough. No, I had to dig deep into myself to really live the emotions. In some sequences this was very difficult.”

As an actor, De Muynck gets her inspiration from the most diverse sources, among them painters. “This time I was thinking of ‘The Scream’ by Munch, and of some paintings by Bruegel. He mercilessly depicted his characters in a brutal world. At times, Josée is that kind of wounded animal.”

Sprakeloos opens this Wednesday across Flanders and Brussels

Review: Sprakeloos

Soon after Flemish author Tom Lanoye published his novel Sprakeloos (Speechless), an homage to his late mother, director Hilde Van Mieghem set out to adapt it to the screen. It was a long and rocky road to finance the project, yet she persisted; so credit where credit is due for that.

But let’s not beat around the bush: The film feels underdeveloped. There are some great performances, and lead actor Viviane De Muynck is marvellous. The magic realist touch with which Van Mieghem intertwines past and present works well. But the story is told hurriedly and mechanically, rushing from one scene to the other.

Sprakeloos is a film about a middle-aged writer who sees his mother decline after a stroke. The flamboyant Josée is the family’s pivot, running both the household and their butcher’s shop. She’s also the leading light of the town’s amateur theatre troupe.

And then suddenly this woman with the gift of gab is left speechless, unable to communicate. In the novel, Lanoye makes this decline palpable. It’s as much a novel about language as it is about this woman’s personal hell.

Van Mieghem simply could not create a cinematographic counterpart for this linguistic ingenuity. You’d need someone with the visual imagination of, say, Todd Haynes (Carol) or Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son) to do so, and in her previous films, she has never shown this talent.

It’s a shame that viewers are not allowed to forget that there’s a process of construction behind this story. Sprakeloos is certainly not a fiasco, but the rare heart-breaking moments show that this so-so film could have been much more inspired. ★★☆☆