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In Clara van Gool's adaptation of Henry James' The Beast in the Jungle, the drama is played out in the medium of dance, and set across many eras.

Henry James' novella is a complex story of love, loneliness and fate in which John Marcher and May Bartram meet again after ten years. During their first encounter Marcher had revealed to her his premonition that something terrifying would happen to him, something crushing - like "a beast in the jungle." Ten years later, May is still intrigued by John's assertion but this time determines to remain close to him, even developing feelings of love for him, albeit unreciprocated. And so May decides to accompany John towards a tragic end. Only then does he come to understand the true meaning of his premonition.

"The Beast in the Jungle is not an easy read because the plot is quite static, all the action is internalized. Labyrinthine reflections form the real movement of the story, but I read it more like a duet," explains Van Gool of her approach. "I could see John and May as dance figures."

In the film, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and picked up for world sales and US distribution incl theatrical by NY-based Juno Films, the couple don't age but we observe time passing through their placement within the same English country house in the 19th century, during the Second World War, in the 1960s and in modern times. "I wanted to mirror their story within the progress of time."

Dance is used to reflect the psychological depths and lyricism of James' book, elevating the film from the constraints of narrative convention. "That concept of waiting for something for such a long time, waiting for their love, you can write about it but if you translate it into [a conventional film] you have to invent a lot of side dramas to make it 'believable' - and I thought that was a pity for such a multi-layered story, and with dance I hoped to grasp an element of the beauty and purity of this book," comments Van Gool. "In general, dance is a way to bring something that is underneath up to the surface. In the book, beneath the words and sentences, you feel a whole world of emotional choreography, and I wanted to bring this into the daylight."

The director further elaborates on the effectiveness of dance with reference to her Voices of Finance (2016), which transposed the financial blogs of Joris Luyendijk in The Guardian (UK) into equally articulate monologues, but this time relying on muscle, grace and motion. "This is about movement within the text which is part of the whole choreography. It is also about the energy of expression and how you can allow for more passion with dance than you would do normally with acting." Dance is a direct way to approach classic themes, she adds.

The Beast in the Jungle is produced by Amsterdam-based KeyFilm and co-produced by Amour Fou in Luxembourg, where the film was shot. (The project was developed in collaboration with Illuminations Films UK, with development finance sourced from the BFI.) But given the strong Dutch base to the production, from financial, creative and technical perspectives, did Van Gool ever consider making it Dutch language?

From a practical perspective, she points out, the chance of finding two excellent performers who could both act and dance would have been narrowed somewhat if they had to also speak Dutch. She adds: "No, for me it was always an Englishlanguage project, the text is so precise, some of which I lifted verbatim from the book - I like to play with these texts as well. Of course you can imagine a Dutch storyline too, but I always imagined the really English landscape, the English houses, the whole English culture - and the horses. In Luxembourg we really looked with special glasses to find what could be British." Nick Cunningham

SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.


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