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DOCUMENTS     About: Brussels Swings ! A road movie of sounds, Véronique Bergen

About: Brussels Swings ! A road movie of sounds, Véronique Bergen

2017-Film 60’ by Marie-Jo Lafontaine

In Brussels swings, the artist extends her enquiry regarding the nature of the visible, the power of the image, and the changes occurring in the world as a whole. In order to capture the breathing, the multiple facets of a city filmed shortly after the atrocities of March 22nd, 2016, Marie-Jo Lafontaine adheres to the ethical line of extreme liberty, a recurring theme throughout her entire body of work. Recording a city implies a meditation on the state of the world that is, conceptually and sensory. There is nothing more unrestricted than resorting to a camera that can move like an animal: it glides, crawls, slides, runs, rises, flies, descends into the entrails of the earth and, gives birth to the unsuspecting faces of a capital injured by tragic events. How do you approach a city in hiding, licking its wounds, dealing with its collective trauma, its epidermis pockmarked by the perpetual building sites that gradually eviscerate it?

The artist constructs a new city with sound. A city shaped by music from the four corners of the globe, by images extracted from its collective subconscious mind. She approaches the question of bodies in relation to space, the emotions that connect humans to the surrounding architecture, other human beings and music, without compromising or deconstructing everything that might seem obvious. She seizes the city swiftly, by filming everything that flows, transitory places represented by tense, nervous and shattered aesthetics. Through her incessantly varying rhythms that destabilize our expectations, she disrupts our senses, disturbs our habitual way of seeing, of hearing, of thinking and unshackles our instinctive reflexes. The spectator is thrust out of his comfort zone. Through the sound beams of the music, Brussels becomes a labyrinth of which Marie-Jo Lafontaine probes the contours, the tragedies, the violence, and the desires, with a powerful theatrical intelligence.

Time after time, we encounter a city of speed, a city that is a beating heart, a city that is animal, mineral, a Circe city, a Promethean city, constantly shifting its state, its mood, its colours and shapes. The slightest change of plan can turn it into a windy city, a female city or a tunnel city.

As a metamorphic character, Brussels is seized at the intersection of bodies in movement, the music that gives it its rhythm, the beats of life. Almost an initiation, a path of inner discovery, the peregrinations into the thousands-and-one states of the capital show a city “becoming”, ready to embrace the future. There are echoes of something in between Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” and “Brussels, Open City”, even if our understanding of “open city” might be different. The openness, as we understand it here, doesn’t represent placid surrender so that the enemy might spare the city, but rather an aptitude to change, upping the ante for hospitality.

Marie-Jo Lafontaine does so much more than just film; much more than just recording traces of a collective life, intimate experiences, places and atmospheres. She revives the faces of the city, interrogating identities, mutations and mental geography. With heartfelt generosity and vulnerability, she goes out of her way to find musicians who give her their all, in search of human experience. She imagines a new form of biography, the biography of a city, a fictionalized and intimate biography, at the crossroads of a narrative and an affected topology.

Brussels is filmed as if it were a woman, or a man, from dawn till dusk, from waking till bedtime.

A panorama of a city at dawn, a city shimmering under a pink sky, enveloped in serenity in absolute contrast of its nocturnal madness, stretches to the meditative ceremony of a cello.

Marie-Jo Lafontaine, an artist blessed with an insatiable curiosity, lends a listening ear, hones her sights and observations, in order to establish a genuine contact with the outside world. She has listened to the city’s whispers, noises, breathing, heartbeat, scrutinized its colour schemes, its hidden physiognomy.  Beyond cinematography, this film is the work of a painter, a videographer, and a music lover who allows her subject full manifestation and exposure (in the photographic sense). Her attention to the shades of colour, the nuances of light, the shimmering of fabrics, textures, the tropisms of people are, in fact, those of the visual artist.

There are many ways to be swept away by Brussels swings, a film that allows the viewer total freedom in the way it is experienced. We can enjoy a walk down memory lane, in among the pulsations of a city disclosed by its music; struck by the physical effects the film produces, we can choose any path we want, abandon ourselves in a web of interpretations or contemplate the realities. Any creation worthy of its name that proposes an exoteric, as well as an esoteric, interpretation, can be approached according to our own desires. 

Roller parade, Gay Pride, the 20 kilometres of Brussels… The festive atmosphere, the gatherings, the activists’ events, and sports events too, are captured in their outright spontaneity; a spontaneity that resonates with that of the musicians caught in the act. Aside from the nocturnal partying, the raves, the festivals, Marie-Jo Lafontaine evokes the intimate atmosphere, the ritualistic meditations, and the recollections (the prayer of the cello, its grievances, and its lament before its élan, the whispers of the accordion as it listens to its own demise, the children’s choir, the intimate session between the singer and the pianist…). The dancers and the runners sweat profusely, there’s a magnetic attraction between all those bodies, the hedonism of the glass-and-metal architecture and the Molotov energies of youth… the camera thrusts the bodies and the urban landscape closer together, allowing them to express that which daily life gags, levels and separates.

During the aftermath of March 22nd, 2016, Marie-Jo Lafontaine and her crew make their way through a city devoid of its inhabitants, among the cranes, and the open-air building sites.

We’re within the wheel of time, in the belly of a city trying to catch its breath, slowly regaining consciousness, in the gut of a whale that leans more toward multi-coloured than white.

The city is perceived as a living entity, almost animal, inhabited by a multifarious soul. The play between speed and rallentando, crescendo and silence, happily coexists with the audacious and investigative angle: Brussels captured from a thousand-and-one angles, in all its glory. Brussels offers itself at the surface, on board a tram, but equally, deep in its guts, in the vaults of the metro, from the grey water’s edge of the canals, from the skies above through splendid aerial views. Brussels, seen through its concrete forms, completely dressed-down, without a layer of lacquer, also advocates the forces that make her heart beat. Energy forces that spring from Congolese rumba, jazz, blues, rock, rock folk, the riotous voltage of Celtic punk rock, the young boys’ choir, the lied of Richard Strauss, rappers, beat makers’ sessions, industrial noise rock, ambient sounds, the fierce hurricane of the Taiko players (Japanese drumming), the cello creation, the accordion composition, the vibrating sound installations, French chanson…

Music is more then an art form, it’s a life form; it writes bodies into the urban space, as a statement of our existence. Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s camera occupies the dancing bodies, capturing the bewitching powers of the collective euphoria, as well as solitary escapism, the trance that fuses bodies of all ages, all backgrounds, all nationalities as well as the reverence of an inner retreat. Her way of staging music, its actors and its audiences, is felt in her choice of portrayal of what pushes the city forward: its dynamics, its intensity, and its lavish multiculturalism. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote: “ Without music, life would be a mistake”. Music, after all, does so much more than merely soothe the soul: it liberates, it alleviates, it breaks down barriers, and it sets people free.

A voyage into music, into the soundscapes where influences blend seamlessly, echoes the voyage into the space surrounding us, into the urban textures where a hedonistic mix of styles leads the way: it’s an amalgamation of the architecture and, also, a deconstruction of tradition.

Music often resembles an exorcism, an electric deliverance, adrenalin combined with a return to our collective roots. The Celtic punk band throws a huge “NO” in the face of the world, a tribal barrage of Triskelions with swirling kilts and bagpipes, mixing Scottish folklore with the fury of punk. An onslaught of frenzied, wild guitar riffs almost assaults the public: rock becomes revolutionary, Druidic pogo. The bagpipe player with his Lernean Hydra-shaped instrument launches into a Scottish melody amidst a military-style salvo. The hoarse, guttural grunts of the singer cause goose bumps; his low, rumbling register slices through the high-pitched sound of the bagpipes.

The film doesn’t really illustrate anything in particular; it simply makes its journey through a real, imagined or dreamlike city. Brussels by day, Brussels by night… its diurnal existence has nothing in common with its nocturnal reality. To be precise, as Brussels passes from day into night, it changes its form, its physical state, its identity and dives into a funnel of avatars.

Daytime beauty… Night-time beauty… As night falls, Brussels undergoes a metamorphosis; different tribes awake to leave their imprint on the streets, the cafes, and buildings of the city.  Marie-Jo Lafontaine is a Jinn, freeing the city of its pretences, its inhibitions and appearances. The camera, like a speleologist, penetrates the polished surfaces and plunges into the subconscious layers of the city. Favouring questions rather than answers, scratching beneath the surface, under the fossilized imagery, below the official discourse, Marie-Jo Lafontaine paints a poignant portrait of a city looking forward to its future.

We move through the wheel of time, on the dial of duration, passing through the quivering diurnal displays of neon light, feeling the heat of the night birds’ bodies.  The film favours the waking of reminiscences. It conjures a phrase by Proust: ”When a man is asleep, he has in a circle around him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host” (Swann’s Way).

A forest of legs, a symphony of steps from the crowd walking the streets, the runners’ calf muscles, marathon runners looking for the Holy Grail, the sunny disposition of musicians, the warmth of human connections and encounters, the colours of African rhythms that ruffle the city’s feathers, a barge sliding across the canal; water, asphalt, passers-by, trains, rails, signal boxes, road signs, perpetual public works, writing on the walls, shutters opening, fountains; painted faces, laughter lines, bodies aiming for the present, savouring the here-and-now, every second is carpe diem; the sensuality of the cello’s wooden structure, the choreography of the bow, the bellows of the accordion, the poetry of a moment that will never return; filming the present moment but also the mere trace of it, the aftermath, the dance of rose petals swirling in the air at Gay Pride…

When the artist films the beaming faces of the children’s choir, the concentration on the faces of the young boys singing in canon, we once again discover the magic of the portrait (think of the series “The Children’s Garden” (Le Jardin d’Enfants).

Under the direction of Marie-Jo Lafontaine, the city strides on like a living organism, evolving, and blooming like a flower. The film embodies Victor Hugo’s words: “A city ends up becoming a person”.

New perspectives of the city are created, the music infusing bodies, urging them to move. The connection of percussion, the surge of drums and the rhythms of the Ferris wheel; the link between the soprano and falsetto and the weightlessness of light; echoes, the resonance the rumbling bass, the seismic humming of the places that file past… The outline of sound sketches and sculpts the shape of the architecture and compositions. The boundary between music and noise becomes indiscernible.  Marie-Jo Lafontaine shows us the music of the city, its environmental soundscape, the noise of cars, transport, passers-by, silence, because all is music. Except for the void, acoustic vibrations pass through everything, be it water, air, hearts, or heads. Even though music is the most elusive of art forms, its magic spell is borne from its physical and sensory effects.

Futuristic tribal music, metal, velvet, blood, water, fire, earth, celestial, hopeful, revolutionary, sunny, becoming solid rock, becoming spiritual jazz, with singers who have stepped straight off the tower of Babel… Just like plant species, music fuses and crossbreeds. Cold wave, industrial rock, noise rock, folk rock, house music, acid jazz… Each genre has its spinoffs, perpetually looking to mingle, to expand, to diversify its spectrum, and surpass its codes, even the laws of physics. The film unravels its art through the forks in the road, the transitions it encounters. The interesting thing about art is its unpredictability, the surprise factor, the conflagration of ideas and sensations, something at which Marie-Jo Lafontaine excels. We are drawn from a subdued atmosphere into an explosion of energy, from a meditative state into trance-like chaos, from a caress to an uppercut, from bagpipes to saxophones.

Under the watchful camera-eye of Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Baudelaire’s words – “The shape of a city – alas – changes faster than the heart of a human” – adopt a discrepancy in magnitude, as if the speed of the city’s modification joins that of the inhabitants’ changing attitudes.

The urban crossing is in tune with its soundscape. As nothing can contain or imprison sound, nothing can hold back a sight-traveller like Marie-Jo Lafontaine. Blinkers and clichés are removed; exclusion and the balance of power vanish into oblivion. What remains is the abode of humanity, the bestial aspects of the cobblestones, the intersections, the trees, the residence of the undisclosed vital power of people.

Sometimes, the city plays hide-and-seek, slips away, conceals itself under a veil, becomes a veritable trompe-l’oeil, only slowly and half-heartedly revealing its secrets, its hidden aspects, its unspoken truths and its subterranean layers. Marie-Jo Lafontaine, patient, lying in ambush, waits for the signs to manifest and invents a tool for Brussels to reveal itself. She films the city awakening and retiring; she summons it in all its varied positions, upright, sitting, prostrate, she captures a city tattooed by tags, convulsed by holes, excavations, subjected to constant construction.

After seeing Brussels Swings, our perception of the city will forever be changed. The artist has conjured a Janus-city, one half of its face dedicated to the fire of day, the other encapsulated by the night, a Romulus-Remus-city, with each creator being a wolf or she-wolf. The plan discloses a colourful nature, sometimes jerky, the urban fibre wavering between chaos and structure, between nature and concrete. In Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s cauldron, Brussels becomes a mirror reflecting our desires, our potentials, stretching like a cat before launching itself into a feline light. Courtesy of the narrative charm subject to a rich pallet of cadences, we can feel the Senne running under our feet, under the rails, under our hearts, in our heads, we discover a breakdance city, a hip-hop city, techno, rap, poetic, rumba, harmonic, world music, swinging, able to adjust to all cultures, all ages, a “life-and-death” city, as one of the singers at the Erasmus House expresses; where cosmopolitan winds and multiculturalism invite themselves to the dining table of the present.

The extreme beauty of the passages, the black-and-white sequences don’t hark back to the past and neither do they evoke nostalgia. Although they can be associated with time-play, they don’t evoke flashbacks or delving into the past. Rather, they denote climatological urban variations, changes in tempo, and enclaves within the flux of Chronos. Marie-Jo Lafontaine does not promote aesthetics as such, but rather the beauty of a soft, voluptuous and sensuous punch in the face. There is no formal approach but an instinctive allusion to the materials, themes and problems that she explores. It’s as if, through her eyes, our epoch, including all its crises, fault lines, worrying mutations and by-products, leads her to dissect the drama and metamorphoses, and never put down her paint brushes or her camera, always forging ahead. Always awake, never resting, a sentry for a world at boiling point, a life artist in all its forms, Marie-Jo Lafontaine responds to the inner and outer earthquakes through her absolute singularity, transcending all genres, elbowing all disciplines. Harpooned, commandeered by the tumultuous present, each piece of work in her polymorphous oeuvre, as complex as it is, and always subject to perpetual renewal, hisses with a sense of urgency as it harpoons us too. From one piece of work to the next, Marie-Jo Lafontaine takes us elsewhere. The fascination that Brussels swings exerts over us, pays testimony to that renewal of form, always attuned to the subject matter. Through the seventh art, the power of the eye that strips and slices, the cinematographer puts the potential of all other disciplines to the test, searching for the lines that separate these mediums, by placing them in relationship to each other.

It is the maker of nice weather, of storms, maker of sound and vision, maker of the world. Art is dependent on sowing and harvesting, on the welcoming of life and how it is transformed into feeling. A system of cross-referencing is established; a web of reflection is installed through an evocative aesthetic of indirect vision: reflections of the multiple facets of the city can be seen in the windows of the trams, in the abyss of the film within the film, the beat maker realizing what the film is actually trying to convey, the shaping of the sound (and the images), the mix of the multiple layers of sound. Trying out improbable matches, grafting layers of sound, the beat maker, the neo-sorcerer’s apprentice is oblivious to the law of attraction and repulsion that direct the sounds and rhythms. Certain acoustic entities are ripe for mixing, editing, assembly, coupling, cutting, while others cannot be conjugated. It’s a question of sentimental incompatibility, antagonism even.

The artist is akin to a well digger who digs up data from the depths of human, animal, vegetal or mineral existence, as perfumes, vibrations and emotions that she then translates into visual, plastic, illustrative or auditory inventions.

The cellist-singer’s sensors blend with Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s sensory feelers. Activated like a marionette by a composer, hiding in the shadows, the cellist casts her spell.  Her bow, her hands fly, spatially constructing sounds straight from the Big Bang, emerging from the depths of the universe. Flying off into the heavens, her hypnotic, dematerialized and deflected voice interacts with the video images of dance, forests and nature interrupting the fixed gaze of the owl. Penetrating the glassy fibres of time, transforming time into space, the electroacoustic music choreographs the sound waves and obscures the limitations of our senses.

The dance of the Japanese drummers, a spirit dance to the sound of batons on stretched skins… The taikos appear like suns being pelted by a meteor storm.  Transported by the overlapping images, we are grabbed by the maelstrom of percussion. The Japanese ride quickly takes on the look of a warlike grand finale, a chase, and we’re the prey. Facing a wall of sound, no way out, no dodging. We can only surrender.

Marie-Jo Lafontaine shows us how, moving from one neighbourhood to another, is like shifting worlds. From one sequence to the next, in one shot, we swing from a fierce and yet spiritual musical inscription to the melancholy of the accordion. It’s night and an accordionist has become one with is instrument, plays percussion on it, listens to the sound fade away before revitalizing it with his fingers. The crepuscular shades meld with minor chords in a metaphysical film noir setting. Extinct love far from the bal musette, life looking for its meaning…. The right bellows is silent, leaving the stage to the left one. As they stop moving, the melody - infused with some Erik Satie, it seems - floats away into the night. The streetlights gleam a Turner yellow, a Van Gogh yellow, a jazzy yellow even…

Musicians who look like penitents, draped in long black hooded robes perform electro-vegetal music amidst carnivorous plants in the inner sanctum of a greenhouse. Spectral, initially hypnotic, the melody is carried off by an auditory explosion of rhythm, an electrical rage culminating in pure instrumental trance-like energy, teetering on the edge of chaos. In cosmic deluge, the soundscapes fall like felled trees. The drums uproot the entire world, as it shatters. After the apotheosis, after the sonic distortion in a space dominated by plant life, the water element makes an appearance as a barge, negotiating its route on the canal, dragging an island of foam in its wake.

Brussels, seen from behind, vibes on industrial rock. A profile view shows Brussels extending her canal. Full frontal Brussels sways to the tragedy of a Strauss lied, the marriage of voice and piano instilled with sadness and desperation, up to the last poignant image, the singer in her red dress, retiring from the room, as the chandelier swings from side to side. Is this the destiny of music? Corrupting itself in silence, stripping back to white noise, in order to start all over again.

The film adopts the qualities of the soundtrack, freeing it of height, timbre, duration, and intensity, producing only harmonics. We are, in fact, assisting in the rise of the harmonics of Brussels; Brussels learning to fly. Each piece of music, each artistic creation, each collective happening, each gathering bears witness to a way of living, in and with the city, a way of inhabiting it, of bringing it alive, of changing it. Brussels swings shows us that a city is nothing without the interaction of its citizens, without the involvement of its main actors, be they human or other.

Arterial roads, train rails, intersections, urban furniture, monikers of extreme modernity… by filming roads, canals, and tunnels bathed in the bluish light of the descending night, Marie-Jo Lafontaine implies that the journey, the adventure, is as important as the destination, that the means is, in fact, the objective.  

The road movie, the post-Homeric ballad of the modern Ulysses draws to a close with the energy of youth, the brotherhood of rappers wolfing down life: hopeful uppercuts and defiant rage. Noncompliance for the proscribed, sliding down the steep bank of the present. For the rappers, who close this dance, music is a combat sport, a right hook, a chant for love and fury, a savage bond, and a lifeline. Music changes the world, transforms life, music heals, saves you from boredom, denounces injustice, inequality, and repugnance, it intoxicates, it disconnects from the present, invokes an alternative future, it manages to marry aesthetics and politics, holds death and terror at bay, it makes our grey monotonous world brighter, the compromises made with the inacceptable, it says “NO” to Big Brother, to the blooms of despair, persecution, and the intolerable. The rappers sling us a solid dose of truth; it slips a sun diamond into the belly of existential misery, it trips up “no future”.

Before the credits roll, the film goes off on one last nocturnal peregrination, amidst the drunken ballet of traffic on the main roads leading elsewhere, escaping into the unknown, chaperoned by a sensuous jazzy melody that slithers on the skin. End of the journey, end of the night, velvety voice and mellow light…

Marie-Jo Lafontaine documents our lust for life; our secretive tangos, tearing down the walls that we build inside our heads, delivering the mind of its watchtowers, of the barbed wire that is power.