La vie de Jésus (1997)
L’humanité (1999)

d. Bruno Dumont
The Criterion Collection

I‘ve generally heard good things about the films of Bruno Dumont, but until recently I had not seen any. It’s much easier today than it was even a few months ago to watch much of his output. Last month, The Criterion Collection released his first two features — La vie de Jésus and L’humanité — on home video. You can watch both of those on The Criterion Channel, along with four more of his films: Flanders (2006), Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), Li’l Quinquin (2014), and Slack Boy (2016). These might not be on there for long, so if you’re interested, as I am now, I’d jump at this opportunity. Of course, they also have a nice selection of Pedro Almodóvar films that should take up some time as well . . . Have you checked out The Criterion Channel yet?

But back to Dumont and what I have now seen. I watched the two that were just released on Blu-ray, and, while they were far from easy watches, even far from enjoyable, they were intriguing and have compelled me to seek out as much of Dumont’s work as I can find.

La vie de Jésus

With zero knowledge about the film, I popped in his debut and was surprised by one of the most peculiar viewing experiences I’ve had in years. On the one hand, La vie de Jésus flirts with being dispensable — its story about a provincial youth, filled with bigotry, a sexual appetite, but with little to do, is far from fresh territory. It’s clear early on just where this is going, as far as a story. And yet the film isn’t really about its story. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

The central character is a young man named Freddy, played by David Douche, a non-professional actor in his only film role. Freddy is rather quiet, probably because of his struggles with epilepsy and, apparently, some learning disabilities. He’s just come of age in a small town with friends who also don’t really have anywhere to go either. A lot of time is also spent with his girlfriend, Marie, played by another non-professional Marjorie Cottreel.

It’s these relationships that make the film so interesting. They showcase the vast depths of even a struggling mind. For example, Freddy and Marie don’t necessarily have a tender relationship. They’re together, it seems, because they are together, which might mean, mostly, sex. Still, there is a strange loyalty that comes across, even if they don’t otherwise appear particularly close:

I say this is a strange loyalty because it doesn’t appear to be based on anything other than some conviction that they should be loyal, and yet it is real.

There are also touching moments of loyalty and true emotion between Freddy and his male friends. One of them is losing an older brother to disease, and they cry together. A lot of this is done quietly — Dumont doesn’t have these characters talk too much, which might be surprising for a director whose background is steeped in philosophy — and it looks again like the characters do not particularly know how to express their feelings, but they do feel them. There’s something deeply human about this.

The ugly side of misguided, hateful loyalty rears its head as well. Freddy and his friends have no reason to despise the Muslim family that lives in the small town, but they (and so many others in the town) do. The friends unite to protect . . . something. Their scorn and hate is targeted particularly to the young Kader.

This all comes to a head when Kader takes an interest in Marie. Marie keeps up her loyal appearance and, though not as rude as Freddy and his friends, doesn’t warm up to Kader. In fact, probably due to her experiences with Freddy and the other men in her life, she thinks Kader is only interested in her body.

I feel terribly for her. Her loyalty to Freddy, after all, is misguided as well. He is not good for her. Despite his moments of tenderness and vulnerability, he is capable of the ugliest behavior, including an immensely disturbing sexual assault on another young woman. Through all of this, and in the face of Kader’s more sensitive and reasonable attraction, she is linked to Freddy.

The film ends with some real ambiguity. Again, it almost comes off as too obtuse, too strange, too unwieldy. But it captures something real, and that’s what made me move on quickly to Dumont’s follow-up feature.


L’humanité

There are many similarities between Dumont’s second film and his first. L’humanité also explores difficult themes in a difficult, ponderous manner. Dumont again chose to use non-professional actors. One in particular — Emmanuel Schotté, the star of the film, if you can call such a quiet, reserved, perhaps even weak man a star — is so uncanny it’s brilliant. Dumont again uses quiet, lengthy scenes, where we mainly watch the characters thinking and dealing with their thoughts, though we often don’t know what those thoughts may be. Compared to La vie de Jésus, L’humanité is, in my mind, far superior. It’s the reason Dumont is not just a curiosity to me but is a director with a body of work I want to get to know better.

One of L’humanité‘s immediately apparent differences compared to the prior film is some semblance of a plot . . . sort of (I’ll explain why that’s also misleading in a moment). At the beginning we meet Emmanuel Schotté’s Inspector Pharaon de Winter. We don’t know just why at the time, but we see him running out of a forest and across a field where he falls on his face in revulsion, grief, and shock. It’s a nice callback to one of the final images in La vie de Jésus, where Freddy is lying in a field facing the sun, only here Pharaon is lying face down in the mud.

Back to a similarity with La vie de Jésus: Dumont doesn’t hesitate to provoke us with images we rarely see in film. We soon find out that Pharaon is a detective who has just started investigating the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl. Dumont shows us the body, and we can see why Pharaon is trying to escape when we first meet him.

However, before we get to see Pharaon deal with his case, it’s the weekend, and he gets to stay home. He’s living with his mother, and he hangs out with two unlikely friends, Domino (played by Séverine Caneele) and Joseph (played by Philippe Tullier). Again, one of the most intriguing things about the film is watching the characters interacts. That’s how Dumont shows us their depths.

Here we see Pharaon, gloomy, going out with Domino and Joseph.

And later on they seem to match his mood a bit more, though each inhabits a completely different universe.

As the film goes on, we learn that Pharaon has lost his wife and daughter recently, which makes his blankness understandable, especially in the context of this new crime. He seems so disconnected from everyone.

And yet . . .

Pharaon and Domino, neither of whom could articulate their emotions, have a connection. Domino sympathizes with Pharaon, and not just because she can imagine his pain. In some way she can fully empathize.

At the same time, they are not connected. They come toward each other, but for different reasons, with different expectations, and it becomes clear they are not on the same line at all.

When the weekend ends and Pharaon gets back to work, the investigation gets fully underway. A lot of what we’ve seen in the film’s lengthy weekend break continues to develop in more violent — physically, psychologically, emotionally — manner. It’s ugly, but again Dumont somehow manages instill this ugliness with depths that allow for some kind of tenderness.

As I said above, I’m very anxious to see more of Dumont’s work, as unpleasant as these were. There’s a lot going on in the emptiness here. Do I recommend them? Yes, though with caution: these are not for everyone.

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