Spiritual Exercises: The Short Films of Olivier Smolders

After watching and being fascinated with Nuit Noir, writer/director Olivier Smolders’ lone feature length film, I decided to check out his other available DVD (also from the Cult Classics label) entitled Spiritual Exercises which contains ten (almost all) of his short films. On average, I can’t say I’m impressed; the films are certainly interesting, but too often they’re interesting failures more so than successes. One can certainly see the influences ranging from Lynch to Marker, but most seem to be less than the sum of their parts. They certainly aren’t on the same level as the other great experimental filmmakers.


In a short trailer for Spiritual Exercises, Smolders relates the DW Griffith concept that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun, and here he uses both as an anonymous young man sets up a video camera in his own house to record an anonymous girl reading French poetry before… well, I won’t spoil it. The film seems like a weak attempt at being provocative, but it’s more annoying than anything; one of those films where you can tell that everything only exists to lead up to “the moment”. It’s certainly one of the weakest films in the set.

Mort A Vignole

It’s easily the best film on the DVD, and perhaps the most difficult to describe; perhaps one could call it a Chris Marker-esque essay film on death, memory, and the role that filmmaking takes. Smolders sets up the film as if it’s a montage of family/home movies taken by him, his father, and other family members. He laments over the stillborn death of his daughter while ruminating on the role of cinema and images in capturing memories, and how elusive and illusive non-captured time is. It’s difficult to know just how much of the film is rooted in truth and Smolders’ autobiography—it may be a complete fabrication—but there is a kind of sobering sadness behind it that makes it feel genuine. The most potent images of all the films on this set come from this film, especially those taken in the morgue; but unlike so many of the other “provocative” images in the other films these seem intricately tied to the film’s themes, so they avoid the rather shallow and gimmicky aspect that plagues much of the others.


I love fine art nude photography; apparently, Smolders does too, as L’Amateur seems quite devoted to it—though rather obliquely. Smolders vaguely wraps it up in a “story” about a man who has given up on sexual conquests, and has decided to merely videotape certain women whom he brings back to his apartment (I know, I don’t really get it either). To Smolders credit, there is a great variety in the women: young, old, black, white, skinny, fat. The photography itself is quite good, and, as with the best nude photography, the subjects reveal their personality, rather than becoming mere objects. But that paradox between the beautiful form and the complex human being inside, as revealed through the outside, is one of the key aspects of nude photography and Smolders handles it well. But as cinema I can’t exactly say it’s good or profound.

La Philosophie Dans Le Boudoir

This is a rather dull and forgettable short film of people standing around while excerpts from a Marquise de Sade book are read over the screen. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what the point of it was, probably because I checked out somewhere around the 5-minute mark, when is a really bad sign when a film this short can’t hold the attention of someone who spent 7.5 hours riveted to Satantango.

Pensees et Visions D’une tete Coupee

As a general lover of the arts who has made a conscious decision to avoid visual arts like painting and sculpture—more out of the awareness of how much time the others that I love take up than an actual disinterest or dislike—I’m always interested in films that deal with those mediums. Antoine Wiertz was not a name I’d ever heard of before, but, nonetheless, his work is the subject of this Smolders short film, which stands as one of the best in the set. The film follows a group of visitors to a museum housing Wiertz’s work as the film offers a voiceover that goes into Wiertz’s life, work, and contemporary criticism of his work. Apparently, Wiertz was known for being quite shocking and controversial, though there was debate over the substance/quality beyond that level; I can’t help but see a parallel to Smolders himself. That said, this film is one of the best in the set if only because it doesn’t suffer much from the flaws that plague too many of the other films.


From the unholy to the holy, Ravissements is a short cousin to La Philosophie Dans Le Boudoir, but trades the sexual writings of the Marquise de Sade for the holy writings of Saint Therese of Avila. It’s better if only because it’s shorter, but it’s still mostly just people sitting around staring at the camera.

Point de Fuite

One of the earliest films on this set, and it’s the best behind Vignole; perhaps it’s telling that it’s so unlike any other in the set, but it’s basically perfect for what it is. It’s essentially a take on the old “naked in class” nightmare, as a teacher walks into her class one day to find all of her students nude. She tries to teach a class on a visual art technique called anamorphosis, or a perspective trick where a painting appears distorted unless viewed from an angle (interestingly enough, The Quay Brothers also made a film on this subject). One student comes up to her and writes on the board for her to do the same; she does, but as she turns her back to teach, the students put their clothes back on and she stands alone and naked. What sets this film apart is its sense of humor, which is utterly lacking in Smolders other works; it doesn’t even feel like the same director. But it’s still quite a perfect and genuinely provocative little film.

L’Art D’Aimer

Here’s another one of the forgettables. It’s subtitled “A drama film”, but if there was drama somewhere, I must have missed it. It has a rambling voiceover that tries to relate something similar to a drama, but there’s nothing in the visuals that supports the idea that any drama is taking place. I remember almost nothing other than that it involved a boy, a prostitute, and his mother, but the premise is much more interesting than the film itself.


Somewhat similar to Vignole, this feels eerily like a Chris Marker-like essay film, but, here, the dramatic fiction seems much more obvious and prevalent. It essentially tells the story of a man coming back to the religious school where he once spent nine days in repentance. It’s not made clear why, but the film is full of interesting impressions, visuals, and suggestions. The biggest problem is that it pulls out the “shocking” scene of a pig slaughter (a scene that Pensees… also shares) which seems utterly out of place. It’s a mixed bag and it feels overlong at 30 minutes, but it’s probably the most interesting failure on the set.


Seuls is a portrait of many young children in a mental hospital, and it’s certainly the most disturbing film in the set. With no words (not even a voiceover), Smolders lets the eeriness of their silence and self-made noises—like bouncing off of seats, clapping hands, etc.—tell the story. It’s hard to know exactly what to think about it, but it’s undeniably effective. But like so many other films in the set I found myself wishing there was just a bit more to it.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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