“For the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”
In the “Preface” to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman boldly proclaims the scope of his project: the forging of a distinctly American poetic tradition. For Whitman, the genius of America can be found in the “common people. Their manners speech dress friendships [sic] — the freshness and candor of their physiognomy . . . these too are unrhymed poetry” (712). His proclamation marked a radical departure from earlier forms and secured his position as the poet laureate of American romanticism. By elevating emotion over intellect and the wild and natural over the tamed, Whitman assaulted his readers, forcing them to abandon pretense and acknowledge their shared humanity and the moral responsibility that accompanies it.
Echoes of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” can now be heard in the work of French filmmaker, Bruno Dumont, who turned from academia to the cinema out of a need to reconnect with people. Speaking of his first feature, La vie de Jésus (1997), Dumont contrasts his own approach to filmmaking with the ‘cerebral’ navel-gazing that he feels characterizes much of contemporary French cinema:
What interests me is life, people, the small things. Cinema is for the body, for the emotions. It needs to be restored among the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of joy, emotion, suffering, sympathy in death. They don’t speak, speaking is not important. What’s important is the emotions. It is for the spectator to make these things conscious, it is not for me to do it. . . . The power of cinema lies in the return of man to the body, to the heart, to truth. The man of the people has a truth that the man of the city, the intellectual, has lost. (Walsh)
Like the poet before him, Dumont has turned to the arts in a democratic spirit, celebrating the “common people” in all of their rich complexity. In La Vie de Jésus and its follow-up, L’Humanité (1999), Dumont has restored . . . well . . . humanity to the screen, and in doing so, has transcended the verite and dogme traditions. Instead of simply turning a hand-held camera on ‘real people’ living ‘real lives,’ a manipulative fiction now broadcast nightly on network television, he has, like Whitman, rediscovered the transcendent and the beautiful in the common, by giving us stunning and often shocking images of the body—here, a conflation of the body of flesh with the body politic—and by forcing us to respond truthfully and viscerally to them.
The cumulative effect of these images on the viewer is, at times, unnerving. Dumont’s films slowly erode the ironic detachment and cynicism that we’ve built as defenses, forcing us to actually feel something. For Dumont, wrestling with the intellectual and political consequences of that emotional response remains an essential but always secondary step. It should come as little surprise that L’Humanité was met by a chorus of jeers at Cannes in 1999, while Sam Mendes’s American Beauty—a film that, in many ways, adopts a strangely similar humanist stance—won a Best Picture Oscar the following year. It appears the majority of audiences have surrendered the ability to recognize sincerity (or, perhaps it has atrophied), objecting loudly when asked to do so. Instead, audiences either opt for or are steered toward easy satire and emotional distance, not to mention Kevin Spacey-sized performances to truthful ones. Ricky Fitts claims in Mendes’s film that “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world that I feel like I can’t take it . . . and my heart is going to cave in,” but the scene ultimately has less impact than a plastic bag. It’s a disposable image, like so many of contemporary society’s manufactured emotions. Dumont refuses to let us off so easily.
Central to Dumont’s project is his faith in the power of cinema to return us “to the body, to the heart, to truth.” That faith secures his position in the lineage of filmmakers whom he most admires: Rossellini, Bresson, Pasolini. I might also add to the list Tarkovsky, who, like Dumont, saw the cinematic image as a potential vehicle for the revelation of truth through the simultaneous experience of complex and contradictory emotions. (“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman would laugh.) By privileging the audience’s instinctual, visceral responses, and by doing so within the assumed customs of contemporary European ‘art’ cinema (a questionable categorization, I realize), Dumont deliberately places his viewers in an exasperating position and dares them to find a way out: trained to ‘read’ the complex images of the art house with the intellectual rigor of something akin to New Criticism, they fall immediately into the trap of struggling to decode messages, unravel symbols, and impose order, often where little exists. Dumont, however, frustrates the viewer at every turn by lending those messages an impenetrable ambiguity. So instead, we are forced to confront the stunning complexity of emotions that his films wrestle from each of us: empathy/revulsion, desire/pain, longing/fear, awe/confusion, transcendence/alienation. For his films to touch our hearts and reveal truth, as he desires, they must first shake us free from our expectations by confronting our senses.
That Dumont has succeeded in this, his first goal, is evidenced by the critical response to his work, which reads like a cinematic Rorschach test. The polarized voices that were heard most loudly at Cannes made their way into the pages of Sight and Sound by way of “L’Humanite: Rapture or Ridicule?” a point/counter-point article in which Mark Cousins calls the film “one of the best . . . of the last ten years,” and Jonathon Romney responds by denouncing it as “an unsubtle film and a coercive one.” In separate reviews, Richard Falcon finds the end of La vie de Jésus “almost unbearably and inexplicably moving”; Stuart Klowans calls L’Humanité “off-putting and yet so immediate.”
Dumont elicits these varied responses through a film style that combines the naturalistic, nonprofessional performances of social-realism with austere, Kubrick-like camerawork. As Tony Rayns remarks in his review of L’Humanité, and as most viewers have likely noticed, Dumont’s second feature is a “virtual remake” of its predecessor. Both are set in Bailleul, the small town in northern France where Dumont was raised and where he continues to reside. Both are concerned with the lives of the working class. And both display Dumont’s trademark cinematographic blend of lush widescreen landscapes, glossy-eyed close-ups, and clinically objective (and graphic) stagings of sex. [Brief plot synopses follow.]
La vie de Jésus concerns the tragic fate of Freddy (David Douche), an unemployed twenty-something who spends his days collecting welfare checks and aimlessly riding his motorbike alone or with a gang of friends through town and the surrounding countryside. He lives there with his mother (Geneviève Cottreel), who is as disillusioned and as distant as he. Their first interaction, minutes into the film, is typical of their relationship: with Freddy standing before her, she stares past him at television coverage of an epidemic in Africa. “What a shame,” she sighs, responding to the visual messages on TV while ignoring those on her son’s face. Freddy’s only relief from the oppressive boredom comes from his participation in a marching band, his meticulous care for a pet finch, and his carnal relationship with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), a young girl who works as a grocery cashier and who lives on Freddy’s otherwise vacant street. When Marie welcomes the attention of Kader, an Arab boy, Freddy retaliates violently, kicking him to death on the street.
Like Freddy, the protagonist of L’Humanité lives alone with his mother in a working class section of Bailleul. Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) is a police superintendent, called to investigate the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. We learn little about Pharaon’s past, other than that he has “lost” his woman and child and that he seems to suffer from a heightened sensitivity to others’ emotional pain. He apparently has only one friend, a neighbor named Domino (Séverine Caneele), who tolerates Pharaon’s idiosyncrasies, but who prefers the company of her bus driver boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier). Pharaon accompanies them to dinner and on a trip to the sea. He rides his bicycle, tends his garden, and improvises on his electric keyboard. Occasionally, he also devotes some energy to his investigation, and, by the end of the film, the case appears to be solved.
When reduced to simple plotlines, both La vie de Jésus and L’Humanité sound like standard fare: one a social drama concerning disillusioned youth, the other a classic police procedural. They diverge most radically from the norm, though, in their treatment of their ‘heroes’, a label I feel comfortable applying to Freddy and Pharaon only because Dumont clearly sees them as such. They are heroes born of the same stock as Hemingway’s, Eliot’s, and Antonioni’s: characters desperate to discover communion, beauty, and purpose in an alienating and amoral world. Dumont reminds us constantly of their brutal plight by lingering on shots of their bodies, which appear broken and almost grotesquely malformed. Freddy’s body is scarred by frequent falls from his motorbike and is ravaged by epileptic seizures. He is like a younger version of Pharaon, whose sunken chest, stooped shoulders, and hollow eyes lend him the appearance of a man twice his age.
Dumont’s characters are, in fact, ‘embodied’ by their physiognomies. The director spent ten months casting L’Humanité, then recreated his original ‘prototype’ characters based on the performers’ specific appearance and mannerisms. “I directed them based on what came from within them,” he has said. “I observed their body language and composed my shots around it” (Erickson). One recurring motif in both films is a medium close-up that positions the actor horizontally within the Scope frame, usually in a side view from the chest up. The shots typically last ten to fifteen seconds with little movement and only diegetic sound. For instance, near the end of La vie de Jésus, when he is notified by a police inspector that Kader has died during the night, Freddy sits hunched over in a chair, glancing up slowly to acknowledge the news. As in much of the second half of the film, Freddy is shirtless. The pronounced scratches on his shoulders and arms and the positioning of his body lend him the appearance of one being flogged. A similar image occurs in L’Humanité, when Pharaon leans over to work the soil in his garden.
Dumont’s broken heroes personify his idealized vision of “the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of . . . emotion.” Both Freddy and Pharaon are, on several occasions, overwhelmed by swells of inarticulate rage. Twice, Freddy lashes out by silently kicking a brick wall. In both instances, Dumont frames him in a long shot, suggesting that these outbursts are as much a part of his routine existence as are his moped rides and band practices. Likewise, the most powerful moment in L’Humanité comes when, while investigating the crime scene, Pharaon lets loose a long, wild scream that is eventually drowned out by the noise of a passing train. A “barbaric yawp,” indeed.
As most critics have pointed out, L’Humanité is, on the surface, a police procedural that isn’t terribly concerned with the resolution of its mystery. By traditional standards, Pharaon is an incompetent detective, but it is, in fact, those very standards that Dumont is interrogating. The movie detective is an archetypal Western hero: stoic, logical, and doggedly determined. Pharaon, instead, is a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, is overwhelmed by an empathy for others of which, Dumont suggests, very few of us are still capable. He longs desperately to connect with humanity—to feel it, touch it, smell it, taste it, kiss it—but is frustrated at every turn. Even Domino, who wants, at least on some level, to comfort him, is able to offer only her body. Dumont reinforces Pharaon’s longing for connection by again lingering on shots of the body, but now from Pharaon’s subjective point of view: his boss’s sweat-soaked neck, his mother’s hand as she peels potatoes, Domino’s and Joseph’s bodies in the throes of sex, his own hand as he pets a nursing sow.
This desperate pursuit of human connection is universal in Dumont’s world. Even Joseph and Domino, whose relationship is obviously driven by sex, are drawn together by some instinctive, biological need. Dumont does not censure this primal urge, though. In fact, again like Whitman, his controversial treatment of sex—including a penetration shot in La vie de Jésus —tears down the socio-religious barriers that often prevent us from acknowledging the base desires (words suddenly stripped of their negative connotations) that fuel so much of our behavior. Dumont does suggest, however, that a higher order of connection is attainable, but not without difficulty and sacrifice. In an outdoor cafe scene, we watch as Domino attempts to reach Joseph. She sits silently for several seconds before finally whispering, “I love you.” He’s able to respond only by stroking her hand, then Dumont cuts quickly to a shot of them having sex. A similar moment occurs in La vie de Jésus, when Freddy and Marie float over the countryside on a sightseeing chairlift. “Do you love me, Fred?” she asks. “Sure, I love you. Forever.” They kiss, but both appear more at ease in their embrace than in conversation. When they talk, they sit as far removed from one another as their chair will allow.
The scene on the chairlift is notable because it exemplifies Dumont’s cinematographic style. Seeing his films for the first time, one is left a bit shaken by the graphic sexuality, by the brutality of the violence, and by the absurdity of his heroes. This, again, is the first goal of his project: to elicit a truthful emotional response from the viewer, even if that response is revulsion. But there’s also a formal beauty in Dumont’s films, a beauty that becomes more pronounced with subsequent viewings. During Freddy and Marie’s chairlift ride, Dumont cuts frequently to their subjective points of view. We see, from their perspective high above the ground, another of Dumont’s trademark images: an extreme long shot of the landscape, the widescreen frame divided by land and sky. The motif recurs with considerable frequency in both films, perhaps most notably in the opening of L’Humanité, a static shot that lasts nearly a minute as we watch Pharaon, dwarfed by the immense landscape, run from one side of the frame to the other.
Dumont’s attention to landscapes, specifically, and to the natural world, in general, again harkens to Tarkovsky, who saw humanity’s increasing alienation from nature as symptomatic of its tragic loss of divine faith. Dumont has denied any personal belief in the existence of God, but has admitted to a fascination with the human history of Christ, evidenced most clearly in the title of his first film. In both La vie de Jésus and L’Humanité, Dumont’s camera acts as a mystical agent, offering the audience a glimpse of the transcendent that remains just beyond the reach of his characters. My favorite moment in these films comes just after one of Freddy’s epileptic seizures. He is with his friends, standing beside a road outside of town, when his body seizes, jerking him to the ground. The camera begins near eye level in a medium shot, but then cranes up slowly, rocking slightly from side to side as it climbs, floating over the boys until finally settling on another landscape. It’s a moment of breath-taking beauty that unites Dumont’s preoccupations with the body, the heart, and truth.
A similar mystical effect is created by Dumont’s frequent subjective shots of the sky, which seem to embody, visually and emotionally, his characters’ search for meaning, a search that is then transferred to the viewer. The first of such shots occurs early in L’Humanité: upon hearing of the rape and murder of the young girl, Domino turns her gaze to the sky, as if searching for some explanation for the abominable act. Thirty minutes later, Dumont echoes that scene, when Joseph and Pharaon stand together, staring out at the sea. Hearing a voice, they both look back and to the sky, where they see Domino looking down at them from atop an old fort. By placing Domino in the position that we might assume to be filled by God (or fate or any number of mystical guiding principles), Dumont lends the image an ambiguity that refuses simplistic resolution.
The same could be said of a scene near the end of La vie de Jésus, when Marie and Kader seek privacy in a section of a park that “smells like piss.” Finally alone, Marie embraces Kader and asks for his forgiveness. He looks upward, then, after a cut on an eye-line match, we see the sky as if through his eyes. It’s a beautifully complex sequence, one obviously rife with New Testament allusion. Much of the scene’s power is generated by a lovely close-up of Marie’s face pressed against Kader’s shoulder, a shot to which Dumont returns throughout L’Humanité in Pharaon’s many strange embraces. That beauty, and the potential connection that it seems to suggest, is tempered, though, by the aura of inevitable violence that surrounds the couple. The embrace is a desperate gesture for Marie, and one that, even after repeated viewings, I can only explain by acknowledging the powerful desperation I experience sympathetically each time I watch it.
In “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Flannery O’Connor defends her preoccupation with grotesque characters and absurd situations by claiming, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures” (806). A devout Catholic, O’Connor wanted to awaken her readers from the apathy and intellectual arrogance that blinded them to God’s presence in their lives, to force them to experience what Herman Melville called the “shock of recognition.” In both La vie de Jésus and L’Humanité, Bruno Dumont confronts his viewers from a similar tack. The final skyward glance in La vie de Jésus is Freddy’s. After escaping from the police station and once again wrecking his motorbike, he lies rigid on his back, hidden by tall grass. Dumont’s camera stares down at him as the scene begins to darken, leading us to expect another fade to black. Instead, he cuts to Freddy’s view of clouds drifting across the sun. What follows are two images that return us once again to the body: first, a close-up of an ant walking across his skin (a similar shot occurs in L’Humanité); then, a shot of his hands, dirty and broken beyond their years. As with the notorious final sequence of L’Humanité —Pharaon sits alone, inexplicably handcuffed, after Joseph has been accused of the murder—Dumont leaves Freddy’s fate unresolved. And we are left to wrestle with the consequences. I can’t rationally explain Pharaon’s behavior, nor Freddy’s. Dumont’s world, like O’Connor’s, is recognizable but distorted, heightened, surreal, which might also describe the way I feel when the credits roll: overwhelmed by the experience, but strangely alive to the possibility of something more.
Cousins, Mark, and Jonathon Romney. “L’Humanite: Rapture or Ridicule?” Sight and Sound 10.9 (2000): 22-25.
Erickson, Steve. “Oh, the Humanité!” Rev. of L’Humanite, by Bruno Dumont. Time Out New York June 2000. (7 Mar. 2002).
Falcon, Richard. “La Vie de Jesus/The Life of Jesus.” Rev. of La Vie de Jesus, by Bruno Dumont. Sight and Sound 8.9 (1998): 55.
Klawans, Stuart. “Columbo This Isn’t.” Rev. of L’Humanite, by Bruno Dumont. The Nation. 10 July 2000. (7 Mar. 2002).
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” Flannery O’Connor: Selected Works. Ed. by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998. 801-06.
Rayns, Tony. “L’Humanite.” Rev. of L’Humanite, by Bruno Dumont. Sight and Sound 10.10 (2000): 46-47.
Walsh, David. “Interview with Bruno Dumont, Director of The Life of Jesus.” 20 Oct. 1997. (7 Mar. 2002).
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Norton, 1973.