In The Giants, the new film from Belgian actor and filmmaker Bouli Lanners, three adolescent boys spend the summer together, moving through an uneasy rural existence somewhere between youthful misadventures and dangerous abandonment. It is a film of great empathy and acute observation, and it suggests both a modern day coming of age tale and an update of a fairytale or storybook. The three teens, who are hardly noble innocents, deal with a drug dealer, his moll and a psychotic thug, but it could as easily be a goblin, a witch and a troll.
“The adults in the film have an evil aspect, but not in a realistic sense. It’s more like a fairytale,” explains Lanners, speaking through a translator. “The writing of the film was simple the moment I decided that it was a tale where I could write about society.”
If you’re not sure how to cast a goblin/inscrutable drug dealer named Beef, Lanners has a simple explanation for how he came across Didier Toupy, who plays the part: “Beef was a drug dealer from Liege,” he says.
Part of the strength of The Giants, a movie that enjoyed strong festival support and wider distribution than Lanners’ previous two features as director, is how it combines the creative values of gritty realism with a pastoral sense of emotional change. There are drug dealers from Liege and a sense of lives just starting to be defined by the difficulties lapping at the boys’ personalities.
The picture has a strong and intuitive feel for the lives of 15-year-old Seth (Martin Nissen) and 13-year-old Zak (Zacharie Chasseriaud), two brothers who’ve been essentially dumped by their unreliable and unseen mother at their late grandfather’s country home. Joyriding in his old car introduces them to Dany (Paul Bartel), a local teen with an equally minimal family structure and a glaringly psychotic brother, Angel (Karim Leklou), to boot.
Their misadventures, which include stealing food from a neighbour’s basement when they spend the last of their money on goods from Beef, have a sense of comic anarchy that can’t quite hide the danger, both physical and spiritual, that hovers around the trio. Their predicament becomes more acute when they agree to rent their grandfather’s home to Beef as a marijuana growing plantation, a decision which swiftly sees the property symbolically stripped of its contents and the boys evicted.
“But they won’t let themselves be beaten,” Lanners notes. “There’s always this desire to live in adolescence.”
The performances of the three boys, who have the youthful ability to survive a perilous disaster and laugh about it five minutes later, are all strong, with an especially open and yearning effort from Zacharie Chasseriaud, who as the youngest of the three protagonists most openly craves the love of a parental figure and has not yet given up on his mother despite her best efforts otherwise.
It took Lanners months to cast the three parts, and he was looking for the right combination up until pre-production began, when he started to focus on nurturing a bond between the teenage actors and himself.
“I worked with the boys in advance for several months,” says Lanners. “We would go camping together, talk about the characters and the scenes, so it was a very long preparation. But the time we came to filming I was more of their friend than just the director.”
Lanners (picured above), a stocky, ebullient figure whose acting credits include Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement and Yasmine Reza’s Chicas, grew up in Liege along with his sister, although he left home early to work and travel. When he showed The Giants to his mother he had to quickly reassure her afterward that while there were elements of his own childhood in the movie, the absent mother wasn’t a reference to her own parenting.
“There’s a nostalgic element, but also violent and powerful,” observes Lanners, who has spent large portions of his life living around the water and on boats. Lakes and rivers feature prominently in The Giants, which was filmed in Luxembourg, and they’re not just cinematic locations, they suggest a means of physical escape and a sense of idyll.
“I’m fascinated by water,” Lanners says. “I left home very young, to be with nature. “Mother Nature is the maternal figure. It can be dangerous, but here nature also has a protective quality.”
Amidst the hi-jinxes and close scrapes – the boys try both camping and squatting as solutions to their homelessness and neither fares particularly well – Lanners, a former artist, shoots the rich, enveloping countryside with painterly care. There are long, static shots of waterways and fields, where the boys are but tiny figures who barely register amidst the calming landscape. Even when they’re frantic, Lanners’ aesthetic suggests that the world is not particularly focused on doing them harm.
“I wanted an organic camera, one that moves and cuts like nature would, as opposed to that busy video clip feel,” the director explains. “I wanted it to be slow and gentle, like a river.”
As a Belgian filmmaker with an interest in what becomes of individuals with a flawed family structure it would be easy to assume that Lanners sits alongside the likes of the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, the acclaimed chroniclers of marginalised Belgian lives, but that’s not the case.
“I don’t feel part of that connection,” explains Lanners. “It’s a very fine family and obviously when you live in Belgium you’re part of that French-speaking Belgian connection, but I feel closer to the Anglophone cinematic tradition of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. They’re my inspiration.”