By Christopher Sharrett.
Bruno Dumont is one of the outstanding figures of the twenty-first century’s European cinema, so the Criterion hi-definition releases of his two early films, la vie de Jesus (1997) and l’Humanite (1999), are something of a godsend. I have written at length about Dumont on this site, so I’ll restrict these remarks to an appreciation of these two films, now on spectacular discs thanks to a very-needed company.
In his notes to la vie de Jesus included in the pristine Blu-ray, Nicholas Elliot says that Dumont is a landscape artist, a point he makes by way of separating Dumont from Bresson, for whom he is said to be the spiritual heir. And this discussion needs to end. Aside from his long takes and spiritual themes in his earlier work (and he perceives “spiritual” in ways that would no doubt upset his so-called role model) Bruno Dumont has virtually nothing in common with Robert Bresson. Dumont is an atheist, something that is manifest in his art, especially by the release of Hors Satan (2011), which provokes the true believer, suggesting that the messianic impulse might be pure projection or pure insanity, with the messiah here more than profane. For this and a couple of other films depicting sexual intercourse, some have plunked him in the “New French Extremism” category, making me think of the disservice of all categories, and the way that we, at this moment, are devolving intellectually.
Le vie de Jesus seems to be strangely titled given its content: a young tough named Freddy (David Douche) rides around the town of Bailleul (Dumont’s birth home and the locale of many of his films) in French Belgium with a pack of fellow motorbikers. These boys are not the cast of The Wild One (1955), trashing the town and abusing its citizens. They do cause some trouble, notably by making obvious their (and the town’s) entrenched racism, making la vie especially timely. Mostly they sit around, looking sullen and bored, as victims of the neoliberal world economic order. Bailleul itself looks sullen, its empty streets of brick buildings having little identity, at least to someone unfamiliar with the terrain.
One element separating Dumont clearly from Bresson is his use of people. Like Bresson, he uses, in most films, non-actors, but they are not the “monotone mannequins” (Dumont’s words) of Bresson’s films. Emotions appear, and there is nothing mechanical about Dumont’s direction. Especially radiant is the girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cotreel), luminous in several shots as she looks upward.
Dumont was inspired by Ernest Renan’s novel of the same title, a book that looks at Jesus as an ordinary person, his divinity manifest even as the narrative deals not in miracles but the quotidian activities of everyday life. But in Dumont’s film there is no Jesus, no apostles (unless we accept the toughs as such), no Middle East, no Pilate, nor the other décor of the Bible story. So is Dumont trying to root out the spiritual in his close examination of some less-than-appealing young people? The first clue might be the gang’s visit to the hospital, where a friend is dying of AIDS. A particularly moronic-looking biker stares at a painting, a reproduction of Giotto’s The Raising of Lazarus (1306), which he can process only with the help of zombie associations. And yet this moment, carefully framed by Dumont, is derided by no one, as the young man makes some sort of ineffable connection, one would guess, to the picture and the friend on the bed. Indeed, Dumont makes the gang – and everything in front of his camera – supernatural. One can’t say they are impervious to harm; indeed, the final images of the film, with the epileptic Freddy taking a bad spill on the road, show how fragile their existence really is. But Freddy, lying on the grass, slowly sitting up and bending forward, offers a penitential moment, not praying, but becoming fused to everything in the natural and manufactured world. This first film is nothing short of an homage to humanity.
L’Humanite is of a wholly different order, although we are still in Bailleul and still in the presence of the ineffable, but the spiritual is enunciated in more traditional terms. A police detective, Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotte), tries to find the killer of young girls, one of whom is discovered as the film opens. De Winter is an odder policeman than the lead character of P’Tit Quinquin. He seems barely functional, so overwhelmed by the evil he confronts he throws himself face down into an empty, newly ploughed field of manure after we first see him in extreme long shot, miniscule on the horizon line. Later, he runs across a field toward a high-speed train track, screaming as the train passes – the act gives him a clue. The realization itself, rather than the utility of the clue, puts Pharaon further in the domain of the sacred.
As before, Dumont’s performers aren’t actors, and here his casting strategy is supremely profitable. Emmanuel Schotte controls the film, mainly through his unflinching, penetrating, wholly sympathetic gaze. Dumont allows his character to levitate, making the audience question what it is seeing. De Winter/Schotte makes this murder mystery a meditation on sensitivity. De Winter is an observer of a life from which he is excluded. His backstory says that he lost a wife and child to an accident, but is this plausible? He lives with his mother and appears asocial, although he tries to connect with Domino (Severine Caneele), an unprepossessing woman who lives down the street. Domino has a boyfriend named Joseph (Philippe Tuillier) who seems kindly toward Pharaon, not minding a platonic threesome. When Domino catches Pharaon watching the couple having sex, she is enraged, then forgives this absolute naif.
Robin Wood said that Ingmar Bergman is an artist “in the great civilized European tradition.” The same might be said of Dumont, as each film takes us to the question of art’s value “in the world of men” – a Bergman quote. L’Humanite cites Courbet’s The Origin of the World and Bach, as his other work makes use of elements of the artistic canon. Here, the Courbet comes alive and connects to the here-and-now in a spontaneous rather than mannered way. The film opens with a citation of Duchamp’s Etait donnes: 1. Le chute d’eau 2. Le gaz d’eclairage (1946-66), with its nude female, her legs spread, lying in a field holding in her left hand a lantern, a waterfall in the background. The film’s opening segment, as with Courbet, anchors the film in the present, asking us questions about the utility of art: what kind of insight does it provide? And is Duchamp merely meretricious or worse, when we see the realization of his idea in a very cruel context?
Pharaon de Winter is a real person, an artist of the nineteenth century who is said to be the main character’s great-grandfather. Pharaon has a copy of a famous de Winter self-portrait on his bedroom wall. He claims it is the original and donates it to a museum exhibit dedicated to his relative. While looking at his great-grandfather’s portrait of a young girl, Pharaon tilts his head in meditative respect. This grandson was born in less sympathetic times, with human sensibility and the race itself under siege.
The film’s title is instructive. It may point us to the plight of humanity in general, or the humanity within all of us. There is no question that this film describes Dumont as humanist, perhaps one of the Italian or Northern Renaissance. The film makes vision – both ordinary observation and the vision that is a synonym for insight – a controlling theme of the film. There are no tricks to L’Humanite, no bewildered cops suddenly getting smart in the manner of Columbo. We either accept the humanity of these mostly unattractive characters or we look elsewhere.
The Criterion editions of the Dumont films have as their notable extras new interviews with Bruno Dumont, along with television conversations, dating to twenty years ago, that remind us how poor the U.S. is at providing space for its art, and forums for crucial ideas generated by art.
Christopher Sharrett is professor of film studies at Seton Hall University. He is a contributing editor for Film International. He is currently listening to the work of Arvo Part.