Emotional Machines: the films of Bruno Dumont

16 02 2012
Bruno Dumont, Hadewijch film


There’s a nice moment in Bruno Dumont’s hypnotic 2003 road movie Twentynine Palms when two weary travellers, an American photographer and his Russian girlfriend, are slobbing out in a California motel room. In a corner of the room, half-ignored, is a TV showing a series of abstract images; a camera panning slowly around the outside of a building at night, the scene lit by periodic flashes of neon. “What’s that?” the woman asks eventually in French, the only language that the lovers have in common. “I dunno”, he says. “An art movie I think.”

Dumont’s own films would, it’s fair to say, be located firmly within the ‘art movie’ bracket by most people. Over the last 15 years, the French director has ploughed a unique furrow in European cinema, with a series of films (La Vie de Jesus, L’Humanité, Flandres) that have sharply divided, and sometimes outraged, audiences and critics alike.

This week Dumont’s 2009 film Hadewijch appears in UK cinemas, more than a year after its release in France, the United States and other countries. It tells the story of Céline (Julie Sokolowski), a devout young woman who is expelled from a convent for her extreme devotional practices (fasting, exposing herself to the elements) and told to go out and experience the world before deciding to devote herself to God. Returning to Paris, and her wealthy parents, she soon befriends Yassine (Yassine Chikh), a young Muslim from an impoverished housing estate with leanings towards Islamic extremism. Céline, the virginal Christian extremist, becomes involved in Yassine’s Islamist world and eventually in his violent plans.

Those who have seen some of Dumont’s previous work may detect something of a pattern here. The 53-year-old director has a reputation for mixing what can seem like fairly brutal and hopeless depictions of contemporary life with larger metaphysical and philosophical themes.

Dumont was born in Bailleul in north-eastern France and spent his twenties and thirties both teaching philosophy and making industrial documentaries, honing his craft in factory interiors, on production lines and at trade shows. “I was only shooting the machines but I was looking for the emotion in the machines,” he once remarked, in an interview for the DVD of L’Humanité.

Something of this approach has carried over into his fiction work, which began in earnest with 1997’s La Vie de Jesus, his feature debut. Dumont famously only uses non-professional actors, steering their performances in the affectless, minimalist direction favoured by Robert Bresson, in many ways his cinematic forefather. So, at first, Dumont’s characters often come across as little more than slack-jawed yokels, staring off into the middle-distance, their thoughts a complete mystery to us (see much of Flandres) or overcome by emotions that they themselves can barely express (L’Humanité).

L'Humanité, Bruno Dumont, Emmanuel Schotté, 1999

Emmanuel Schotté in 'L'Humanité'

And yet there’s something else going on here too. Dumont’s characters often seem to take on themselves a kind of moral or spiritual burden that is out of step with the world around them, rather like the long-suffering donkey in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. So in L’Humanité (1999), still perhaps his best film, the main character is a vacant-looking, teary-eyed young policeman who is supposedly investigating a brutal rape and murder. We soon come to realise, however, that he is somewhat unsuited to the task, overwhelmed as he is by feelings of sadness and guilt that others are too insensitive or selfish to give voice to themselves. He shuffles mutely from scene to scene, observing his boss, his friends and the people he’s been sent to question, and generally doing the kind of lax policework that would earn him a good clip around the ear from Hercule Poirot. Taking things a step further, Céline in Hadewijch not only experiences this kind of suffering but actively seeks it out as part of her self-imposed religious mission.

But if Dumont sees us as spiritual creatures, he also sees us as being defined, almost trapped, by our bodies and our physical needs. Sex certainly plays a big role in his work. In Flandres (2006) we see provincial rustics copulating joylessly in muddy fields like animals, before the men are shipped off to a dreamlike war somewhere in the Arab world. And the bulk of Twentynine Palms consists of our main characters driving around the Californian desert while a repetitive song plays on the radio, stopping periodically to play Hide the Sausage in the great outdoors. The man is supposedly on a photographic assignment but, just as the farmers in Flandres are defined by and lost in the great flat, soggy French north-east, so the lovers are adrift from one another and from everyone else in the desert, finding increasingly desperate consolation only in the pleasures of the flesh.

Sudden explosions of extreme, destabilising violence are also a hallmark of Dumont’s work. Indeed the very precise, almost calculated, way that he uses sex and violence have seen him singled him out for criticism. The calm of Twentynine Palms is shattered by a horrific encounter with some rednecks; Flandres culminates in a castration; L’Humanité starts with a horrible (some would say provocative) shot of the exposed genitalia of a murder victim. Such Breugel-like images tend to provoke either queasiness or laughter, and some critics have written Dumont off as a over-mannered sensationalist, shocking his audiences for the sake of being shocking.

Bruno Dumont, yesterday

I would argue, though, that this violence goes back again to the director’s persistent interest in mind and body, in the corporeal and the spiritual and how the two co-exist. This interest – or obsession if you prefer – certainly places him at odds with a lot of contemporary film-makers in terms of his starting point and his whole approach to cinema. In particular, his films seem shaped by an interest in medieval art and philosophy; the original Hadewijch was, after all, a 13th century mystic and poet whose desire to forge an extreme, self-annihilating relationship with God seems rather at odds with the 21st Century western mindset.

But are things really so different nowadays? With Hadewijch, Dumont is surely trying to show us that the world today is as riddled with both spiritual yearning and religious extremism as ever, and that maybe a questioning, studied, philosophical kind of film-making is the best response to this.

It’s certainly possible that the director takes himself too seriously, and that his work does occasionally lapse into self-parody. On the other hand, those who dismiss his cinema as nothing more than pretentious art house fare are missing out a great deal too.

I’ll leave the last word to the man himself: “I need spectators to participate in the film, to finish it,” he told The Huffington Post recently. “I am an atheist. It is up to us to become God. We need to be elevated, to become saints… Yes, my films are mystical, to make people feel the mystery. To inspire them to experience for themselves the miracle of existence.”

Sounds like one of them art movies to me.

Hadewijch is out in UK cinemas from 17th February



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