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.

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Among the Believers

10 12 2009

'The Wicker Man'

A few weeks ago it was my girlfriend’s birthday. To mark the occasion we had a nice Italian meal and a bottle of wine, then sat down to watch a policeman being barbecued alive inside a giant wicker statue. We were watching The Wicker Man of course, and we were doing so partly to mark the passing of Edward Woodward, the film’s star, who died in November at the age of 79.

In The Wicker Man, Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, a strict Presbyterian copper who visits a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Initially finding the locals somewhat uncooperative, the policemen soon uncovers sinister forces at work on the island. To his shock and evident distain, he stumbles across people worshipping phalluses, dancing naked around bonfires and engaging in all kinds of unsavoury pagan activity. “Have ye not heard of Jesus Christ?” he asks some schoolchildren at one point. But it’s evident that neither they, nor their parents, nor the barman’s sensuous daughter (Britt Eckland) have been brought up on the Good Book, a fact that continues to rankle with Howie even as he fights his own, newly-awakened desires. 

The film was made in 1973, and even then Howie would have seemed like a character rather out-of-step with the times. Now, 36 years later, and with Western societies both more multicultural and more secular than ever, it’s hard to imagine that any contemporary character would be so shaken to the core to see his or her religious beliefs challenged.

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Leave It to the Non-Professionals

10 09 2009


Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

Katie Jarvis in 'Fish Tank'

There’s a story that when Luchino Visconti was filming La Terra Trema, his 1948 neo-realist study of the lives of Sicilian fishermen, he tied fishing wire to the toes of his actors. This wasn’t, as you might imagine, anything to do with keeping them inside a boat or preventing them from wandering off. No, the wires were there so that the director and his crew could pull on them to give a prompt whenever it was time for an actor to speak.

You see, the actors in La Terra Trema were all non-professionals, real-life fishermen who Visconti had selected for their hard-worn looks and thick Sicilian dialect. The fishermen certainly looked the part, but often had difficulty remembering lines or knowing when it was their turn to speak. Visconti was finding out the hard way that working with non-professionals is not always as straightforward as it might seem.  

Since then, hiring non-professional actors has become the trademark of directors searching for a certain kind of authenticity in their work, almost to the point of cliché. Everyone from Gus Van Sant to Shane Meadows is at it, the former casting his 2007 film Paranoid Park through an advert on My Space.  

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