If you held auditions for the role of ‘French Film Director’, Bruno Dumont would get the part. He smokes. He wears black. He’s tall. He’s silver haired. He’s good-looking. He has an ineffable air of Gallic superiority. And he talks in sentences as elliptic as those of Eric Cantona. But Dumont is far from a cliché – in fact he’s a cinematic rebel.
Last year his latest film Flandres took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, but his work splits critical opinion like an axe. His four feature films form a brutal corpus – focused heavily on the human body and humanity’s relationship to the land. The urban, intellectualised world that commonly fills French films is nowhere on the horizon. Dumont’s work, though shot in California and Northern France, seems to set humanity in a more abstract wilderness – somewhere to the east of Eden.
Dumont says his films inoculate us with evil. He explains that, ‘immorality can spark morality – if you make a hero out of someone who does evil it will allow the audience to wake up to good. Cinema obeys the laws of nature – we are reactive – our immune system reacts against evil and the process takes us towards good’. But it is firmly up to the spectator to moralise – Dumont offers no definitive judgements; his is a ‘wild, amoral, immoral cinema’. A former philosophy teacher, his object is to get as close as he can to the viewer, to touch them, to move them, to awaken them – but not to please them. In this sense his films are about as far as you can get from the Hollywood mainstream. Yet what he is working with is an archetypal form of story telling – the allegorical fable of good and evil. The unusual quality is that Dumont handles his stories with the detachment of a philosopher, rather than the intrusiveness of a moraliser.
In Flandres, Dumont returns to the flatlands of his home. Shot in the same region as his first two films La vie de Jésus [The Life of Jesus] (1997) and L’humanité [Humanity] (1999), Flandres is again concerned with the lives of the working class – social realist territory. We begin in winter. There is no music. The establishing shot of a farmyard is long and static - the viewer is not allowed an easy way in. Dumont and his cinematographer, Yves Cape, give you pictures that are harsh and uncompromising - sketching a fine line between the ugly and the beautiful.
Flandres tracks the relationship of Demester (Samuel Boidin) and Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) – a pair who bring new meaning to the phrase ‘friends who fuck’. They have sex in muddy and frozen fields, their act exposed under the sky – but it is not born out of passion so much as habit. Sex between them is rudimentary, animalistic – Demester experiences temporary relief through it, Barbe apparently feels nothing. What Dumont and Cape’s bald shots achieve is to frame the distance between two people. As Barbe lies prone on the ground with Demester on top of her, she looks up past the camera to the sky – she’s not engaged with Demester, instead she is shown as a dislocated individual, her only connection is with an absent God.
Dumont believes cinema should be ‘an interrogation of the interior landscape’. Flandres deals in stages of distance. There are frequent shots of people placed in perspective by surrounding fields – a camera watches from the middle-distance: close enough to see a story, distant enough to lose the detail. By simplifying the story, Dumont makes it more iconic, more symbolic. You become aware of the seasons passing on screen, of the fundamentals of life. Things that in most films are background here become foreground. What you are left with are exterior shots that do more than set a scene - they speak about a psychological space. Because of this, Dumont casts actors who have a connection with the land, ‘to cast an actor from Paris would make no sense’.
It’s true that around ninety percent of actors are out of work at any given time, but not many directors begin their casting process by visiting a job centre. For Dumont, howver, fiction must have a ‘grounding’ in the real – because of this he spent two years finding his actors for Flandres, casting the film himself through visits to job centres, farms and court rooms – he describes it as a ‘miraculous process’. It’s not surprising that Dumont prefers to work with non-professional actors – ‘the script is not all-important… it is about going behind what is written…an actor needs to give an essential truth’. He is wary of on-screen egos and his ideal actor would be anathema to many directors – he seeks out performers who have little interest in the film they are making – actors who will work purely for the money and who will be available because they are unemployed.
For Dumont the film belongs firmly to him, not the performers – he is the auteur. He has a purposefully difficult relationship with his actors – ‘I’m not looking to make friends’. And he expressly states he does not have affairs with actresses. This disclaimer is the result of being asked the question one too many times by journalists.
Dumont’s vision of humanity is founded on stark and uncomfortable gender divisions. In Flandres the men go off to war, and rape – the women stay at home, get pregnant and go mad. It is again archetypal storytelling – a stripped down version of the Greeks and Shakespeare. And it’s one of two aspects of the film that feel designed to make an audience want to leave the cinema. But just when you start to think Dumont is an unreconstructed misogynist, he manages to undercut the themes and figures he has created with morally opaque forms of justice and redemption. Dumont likens his portrait of Barbe – the heroine – to a Francis Bacon painting: ‘She’s reality modified; she’s inexact – not sociological – Barbe is just one aspect of women expressed to the full. She is an impression of reality, distorted, deformed. Sometimes viewers reject that ambiguity’.
The second aspect of Flandres that makes difficult viewing is the slaughter of the innocents. The film is marked by two geographies: the flat blue/green of northern France - and the flat yellow/orange desert of a war zone. In the first we are in the wilderness – Demester sets a hand-made animal trap in the mud. In the second landscape we are the progeny of Kane – Demester is now a soldier, party to rape and execution. It’s hard not to see politics in the desert: Iraq, Algeria. But Dumont denies any topical intent. His portrayal of war is again an archetype. Echoing his own script he flatly states, ‘Innocents always die in war, it’s what always happens’. Dumont is interested in the fundamental human state, not in current affairs.
When a younger man, Dumont was rejected by all the film schools he applied to. He spent 15 years making corporate films - mainly about chocolate factories. He taught philosophy, but gave it up because of its ‘limited ability to connect with people’. But Dumont’s films remain the work of an outsider. The eye of his camera sees everything – sex, death, madness, love – but at an oddly dispassionate remove, like a poem told in the third person. Despite its violence, Flandres is a slow-burning film. The thing is, it continues to burn in the retina and the mind after the light of the projector has gone out.