Bruno Dumont’s cinematic repertoire has been characterised by unstintingly realist portrayals of modern life, and of the place of male companionship, sexual behaviours and extreme violence in settings ranging from tiny rural French communities to urban developments populated mostly by North African migrants. Dumont’s films veer between celebrating personal intimacies (often in unusual, almost surreal forms), and the seemingly inevitable bursts of violence which permeate his films. With his latest, Camile Claudel 1915, having recently premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, now seems a good time to look back upon four of the director’s most fascinating and iconic films.
The Life of Jesus (La Vie de Jesus)
Dumont’s first full-length feature, The Life of Jesus focuses upon the closely-bound but often unsettling behaviour of Freddy. An unsettled teenager unusually close to his mother (a bond heightened by his health problems with severe epilepsy), he is also part of a tight-knit social group; an all-male set who show genuine affection for one another, but an open hostility towards the racially ‘other’ Kader, and to the overweight girl they publically humiliate. Dumont successfully creates a particular uneasiness for the viewer, borne out of the genuinely kind compassion the boys show for one another, which contrasts starkly with their prejudices. Freddy remains one of Dumont’s most interesting figures (helped by David Douche’s gripping performance), as he shakes off questions over his troubled health with a self-conscious anger indicating the fascinating struggle between his desire to be macho, and the anxiety which seems to grip him, throughout the film. The film suffers from some clunky dialogue, and a couple of scenes provide little entertainment or food for thought, but the film’s dissection of the boys’ insular set-up and beliefs, as well as a wonderfully-handled climax, make The Life of Jesus a largely fascinating film.
Written off by some as an exercise in shock, and praised (to varying degrees) by many as an alternative and striking war film (including the Guardian’s ever-reliable Peter Bradshaw), Flanders is probably Dumont’s most unsettling and bleak film. The emotionally detached (or perhaps emotionally stunted) Demester (a superb Samuel Boidin), is at the center of Dumont’s fourth feature; his grim resignation to life on a bleak, unsuccessful farm shaken by his girlfriend’s departure for the handsome, apparently more sophisticated Blondel. The film’s first third is standard Dumont territory, and whilst it is interesting, elements feel like a rehashing of The Life of Jesus, but the narrative’s shift to an unspecified war, in an unspecified land, shifts not only the landscape, but also the tempo and the thematic focus of the film.
Demester finds himself in the same regiment as Blondel, though there seems little directive for either of them, and they traverse the landscape committing apparently random and gruesome brutalities; leaving men disembodied, and raping women – atrocities which Dumont does not shy away from, though the explicitness draws attention to the senselessness of the violence, as opposed to stylising or even glorifying it. The film’s cinematography is amongst the best of Dumont’s oeuvre, and heightens the film’s sense of internal and social discordance. The lack of resolution is fitting; Demester is left traumatised by the experience of war, his mind near-lobotomised by the horrors he has committed and has seen. Even by Dumont’s standards, ‘Flanders’ is commendable, brave filmmaking, though to say its narrative is unpleasant is a huge understatement.
Whilst Dumont’s previous films had focused primarily on the negative aspects of ‘macho’ culture, and whose near-silent male protagonists had been drawn into the temptation of violence, Hadewijch was, outside of its single burst of violence, a film largely unrecognisable as the work of an auteur with a signature style. A devout Christian asked to leave her monastery for prostrating herself, through a refusal to eat, Hadewijch (Julie Sokolowski; named after the 13th century saint Hadewijch of Antwerp) returns home to her wealthy Parisian family; her mother and father, whilst kind, remain apparently disinterested in her internal struggle. Dumont chronicles Hadewijch’s increased social awareness, as she meets the impulsive but exciting Yassine, a North African Muslim from one of Paris’ poorer suburbs, and his brother Nassir, whose religious devotion makes he and Hadewijch natural companions. Dumont handles Yassine’s attraction and romantic impulses towards Hadewijch wonderfully, with their personal relationship gradually fading as her spiritual kinship with Nassir increases. The film represents a peak for Dumont’s creative powers; a feat bolstered by Sokolowski’s spellbinding performance in the titular role. The film’s portrayal of religious devotion (or fanaticism, depending on interpretation) is restrained and poignant, but not a passive one. Dumont explores superbly both the attractions of religious faith, and the dangers of it. The relationship between Hadewijch and Yassine; one which grows slowly, and with affection, but with the romantic incompatibility of two people whose lives revolve so much around an all-encompassing faith, is superbly observed. An unwillingness (or perhaps, inability) to leave forms of violence from the narrative jolts it out of place, but this never ceases to be an entrancing and thought-provoking piece of cinema.
Outside Satan (Hors Satan)
Dumont returned to the use of a tiny, rural community for the narrative of Outside Satan, and the coastal village provides a backdrop to the most opaque narrative of his career. David Dewaele is ‘The Guy’, a local ‘healer’ whose income is made by healing the sick, with a mixture of routine checks and ‘spells’, as he recites incantations and breathes into the mouth of a child seemingly unable to cease from screaming. His techniques provide some of the film’s most powerful and unsettling moments, though the apparent success rate of these methods of ‘healing’ would make the NHS envious. Dewaele receives meals from ‘The Girl’, a similarly mysterious local figure; and away from prying eyes, they burn wood and pray to a force which many fans and critics believe to be the Devil, but which, with typical Dumontian uncertainty, remains unspecified. For many, Outside Satan will make for frustrating viewing. Dumont’s script leaves almost everything ambiguous, and even some of the acts of violence which are intimated to be committed by ‘The Guy’, are not necessarily his doing. The film’s strongest success is the relationship between ‘The Guy’ and ‘The Girl’, and the latter’s unrequited love for the former is complicated by ‘The Guy’’s implied jealousy when any of the local men make advances towards her. Visually, the film is impressive, most notably so in a scene where both protagonists walk along a narrow walkway along a lake; the implication being that if either fall in, they could die. The film’s overarching theme, encapsulated in this moment, is ‘trust’. ‘The Guy’’s uncertainty over ‘The Girl’’s sexual fidelity (though their own relationship is not sexual), contrasts markedly with his implicit demand of her to trust his instructions to walk across the lake. As much as it is possible to say clearly what Outside Satan is about, it is about trust, uncertainty and what Dumont sees as the inherent fraughtness of male-female relationships. In that much, it is, though an unusual piece of cinema, representative of the themes of violence and turbulent social bonds and rivalries, and filled with the awkward, unerotic sexuality which underpins a great deal of Dumont’s work.