Directorspective – Bruno Dumont
French academic turned filmmaker Bruno Dumont has slowly been carving out a very unique cinematic identity ever since the release of his first film La Vie de Jesus in 1997. Eschewing conventional cinematic narrative techniques, his films are various meditations on concepts such as good and evil, the nature of violence, the existence of God, and the responsibility of the spectator when presented with these topics in his uniquely obtuse manner.
La Vie de Jesus tells the story of Freddy, a young unemployed teenager who spends most of his time riding his motorbike through the countryside with his friends, and seeing his girlfriend Marie. The film driven by an accumulation of events rather than a conventional narrative progression, with the camera focussing on everything with the same unflinching gaze, seemingly in an attempt to reveal the true meaning behind them. Freddy and Marie’s lovemaking is filmed in the same manner as when Freddy and his friends are fixing a car; each event is experienced as intensely by the characters as it is for the audience.
The youth of the film are isolated from a wider society and their understanding retreat inwards: the only truth they know is their instinctual reactions and can only react impulsively, hoping that explanations will become apparent with time. Early on in the film, they visit a friend who is dying of aids; death is something that hangs over them, its inevitability casting a dark shadow over even the happiest moments in the film.
As the film progresses, the bodies of the characters become inscribed by events that are the only visible markers for their experiences. Freddy’s body becomes more bruised and grazed from falling off his motorbike, and his epileptic seizures become scars on his experience of reality. Most of the characters in the film and understood by how experience the spaces they inhabit, and the film takes its time on capturing these moments in their full duration, allowing the audience to experience these moments with the characters.
His second film, 1999’s L’Humanite, follows detective Pharaon de Winter while he tries to find the killer of a murdered child. Pharaon has a crush on his neighbour Domino, but she is seeing bus driver Joseph: this triangle of desire underpins most of the story, but the film barely resembles either the classical cinematic love story or the generic police procedural film. Like La Vie de Jesus, most of the film is shot in long static takes, simply observing the main characters without letting any cinematic devices affect the pure objective gaze of the camera.
The first thing we are shown is the raped body of a child half buried in the undergrowth, the shock of being presented these images in such a stark and unflinching way shocks Pharaon almost as much as us, and he spends the first part of the film doing little investigation into the crime. Instead he tends to his allotment, hangs out with Domino and takes a day out to the seaside, presumably to try and regain some normalcy to his life that was strikingly taken away by witnessing the child’s body. Pharaon does eventually resume his investigation, but is frequently overcome by emotional outbursts that he cannot seem to contain within himself. He is simultaneously taunted by Domino and Joseph’s relationship: once accidentally witnessing them have sex, and even told by his mother that they will never be together. Having lost his wife and child in a car crash two years previously, the world seems to be overwhelming Pharaon in every way.
The film’s challenge is that the overbearing emotion running under the surface of the characters is often barely expressed by the largely non-professional cast, and often takes the shape of actions which diffuse this pent up aggression in unorthodox ways. The ending of the film initially appears to give us closure to the unanswered questions and unquenched desires running through the narrative, but the final shots ask us to question what we have just seen, and forces us to look at how much can we really trust cinematic reality, even when it is presented in such a starkly realist fashion as this film does.
His next film, Twentynine Palms, marks a break from his previous films by its location in America, and tells the story of photographer David and his girlfriend as they drive and walk around the desert scouting locations for some undefined purpose. Most of the action is confined to the couple making love, arguing in different languages (she is French, he is American), barely understanding each other, making up, and wandering around the desert. A brutal chance event means things quickly go downhill and the film ends with a very nihilistic ending offering no chance of redemption for those involved.
Like his previous films, Twentynine Palms is a meditation on the landscape, and observing how the characters move through it, making note of the confusion of emotion the couple feels because of their alienation to the world around them, and to each other. They take out their frustrations on each other, frequently having passionate and violent sex, but it is obvious that this is not filling the space that still exists between them: even being physically intimate cannot quench the emptiness that seems to be embodied by the endless deserts and plains that surround them as they drive endlessly without aim.
The film can be seen on one hand to be a thinly veiled commentary on the contemporary American psyche, with its lack of communication and understanding leading to inevitable violence against all those involved. But it is also a more universal look at how the places we inhabit can affect our state of mind. There is the distinct lack of quasi-religious mysticism that creeps into Dumont’s other films, and this may have to do with his choice of filming in America; a place where religious fanaticism along with the almost holy idolisation of the power of material goods and possessions runs high.
Flanders begins in much the same way as his previous films: long takes of the countryside inhabited by silent characters whose emotions and desires initially remain hidden from us. However the film does step into new territory by examining how the experiences of war affect those who return from it, along with the physical and mental scars that it inflicts. Demester is a farmer who appears to have an on/off relationship with Barbe, who is also sleeping with another man from the village. Soon enough, the men of the village are all called to enlist in the army, Demester casually nonchalant about where is being sent or what he will be asked to do.
Things quickly get out of hand; with several of Demester’s company being killed or losing their cool and killing civilians. Demester, as with all of Dumont’s protagonists, remains emotionally distanced from the events his is involved in and does not illicit any responses to his comrades being killed. In a heated moment, the company break into a civilians house and pull out a woman, not knowing whether she is a terrorist of not, they rape her and leave her lying naked in the dust. Demester takes part in this rape with the same disconnected attitude that he had when he made love to Barbe in the beginning of the film. He is as though he is unable or unwilling to examine his own role in the events he is participating in, to look at himself in either an ethical or moral way.
He returns to his home after having left the last remaining member of his company (and Barbe’s other lover) to die at the hands of the enemy after becoming injured. Like Freddy in La Vie de Jesus, his body and face are inscribed with his experiences; the heat of the sun has darkened his skin and he is covered with grazes and cuts. He still seems unable to examine his actions and Barbe becomes increasingly angry at him. At the end of the film he breaks down, saying that he hates himself for what he has done, yet also telling Barbe that he loves her, something that he had not said to her before. His unintentionally stoic façade has broken down, with all the hate and love inside him pouring out simultaneously.
His 2009 film, Hadewijch, follows the devout young believer Celine on her search for God. Initially expelled from a convent for being too pious for such a young girl, she moves back to central Paris with her affluent but distant parents. She meets a group of young Muslims and befriends the older Yassim, who introduces her to Islam and its teachings.
Hadewijch is the first of Dumont’s films to directly feature a main character grappling with their conception and expectations of God, rather than weaving a semi-mystical experience into the lives of individuals not openly religious. The camerawork is just as simple and austere as his previous films, which lends itself well to the contemplative atmosphere. Dumont also chose to use a less anamorphic image size to take the emphasis away from the medium and draw the viewers more directly into the experiences of the characters.
The film, as usual for Dumont, does not provide simple answers to the questions it raises, and the enigmatic final scene certainly opens more doors than it shuts. What it does achieve is the creation of a space where Christianity and Islam are put into a dialogue with each other, and presents them as having more in common than they realise, without reducing it to the issue of social multiculturalism.
Hors Satan (Outside Satan, 2011) could be seen as a direct continuation from the ending of Hadewijch; the main character (the anonymous male lead) is the same actor who plays the individual who rescues Hadewijch at the end of the film. Hors Satan follows a homeless man who inhabits the countryside of Northern France; he is friends with a young girl and they spend most of their time walking around the fields and forests, filmed with Dumont’s trademark distancing yet engaging camerawork. The man kills the girl’s father after she reveals he abused her, as well as a park keeper who tries to seduce her, but he balances this murderous streak by performing a kind of exorcism on a catatonic young girl as well as other biblically styled miracles. He frequently prays towards the rising sun, and lives modestly in a clearing surviving on handouts from locals.
The film clearly has religious overtones, yet is not as clearly defined as they are in Dumont’s previous films; the man seems to represent both the powers of good and evil, and uses them both whenever they are deemed necessary for the greater good; i.e. killing child abusers. The reason for this man having these powers is not explained, yet it is not necessary since an explanation would reduce the impact of the idea: it is much more powerful to examine the consequences of someone embodying both good and evil without distracting the audience by explaining why.
Ultimately, the film, like most of Dumont’s other films, needs time for these concepts to sink in; this is not a film to be watched and quickly forgotten: the images and events of the film are so simply and strongly conveyed that they remain in the memory for a long time after the film has finished. It is also a film that resists easy interpretation, and its strength lies in its ability to remain open to multiple explanations, much like the way that the man contains the conflicting powers of both good and evil: while your own beliefs may lie on one side of the spectrum, there is always the existence of an polar opposite opinion to balance it.