Wednesday, September 30, 2009

La Vie de Jésus (The Life Of Jesus)

Bruno Dumont’s remarkable film was hailed on its appearance in 1997 as the most assured and promising debut of recent years, as well as exciting no little controversy for graphic physicality in its couple of sex scenes, and an almost-explicit penetration shot. Then 39 years old, Dumont had previously made his living as a philosopher and industrial video-maker, but was galvanized into action by what he saw as a tendency to sterile talkiness in European art cinema; his contemplative, semi-mystical study of provincial teenage boredom duly won the BFI’s Sutherland Award, the Prix Jean Vigo, and a special mention at Cannes, and was flattered with comparisons to Bresson.

Using non-professional actors and shooting the flat dull landscape around his native Bailleul in Flanders, with a restrained camera, soft muted tones and often painterly work from DP Philippe van Leeuw, Dumont tells the story of Freddy (David Douche) and his gang of pals. In their late teens, they spend their days roaring down the country lanes on motorbikes and sitting around at a loose end. Freddy is the only one with a girlfriend, Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), their relationship finding fullest expression in their kissing and love-making; the interest shown in her by local Arab boy Kader (Kader Chaatouf) prompts an act of violence that provides the film’s climax.

Although part-motivated by jealousy, this attack is also an expression of the unthinking racism endemic in the small town; the one moment in the film of community camaraderie takes place in Freddy’s mother’s bar, on Armistice Day no less, as the townsfolk laugh together at the insulted Arab family’s exit. The problems of this community, as far as they affect the teenagers, range far wider however. Described by the boys as “Nowheresville”, the dull old town is comprised of rows of identical houses, with the ugly modernity of urban development at its centre, and surrounded by endless empty fields, bleak beneath the white wintery sky and scarcely more cheerful in summer. It’s a place where people sit outside their houses on Sunday, doing nothing; the boys collect welfare in the absence of jobs; and one of the bars is called “Au coin perdu” – the lost, or forgotten, corner. The clumsy symbol of Freddy’s caged chaffinch is introduced early on; in winter, he says, they are kept in cages, but the bird is caged in summertime too, just as the boys are driven to even greater inertia by the heat. He’s teaching his bird to sing by playing it a tape of birdsong. But no-one is playing birdsong to Freddy.

This is not to say their lives are entirely devoid of pleasure; they find enjoyment playing the drums in the (awful) town band; they sing along with glee to the radio, splash around in the ocean on a rare day out, and giggle happily over sex-talk. But these are childish, unthinking pleasures. Freddy’s mother is more than once unamused at things he finds funny, and Marie’s attempts at serious conversation are several times thwarted by Freddy’s childish responses – the two female characters are the only ones with any idea of what it is to be grown-up. Marie describes the gang – accurately – as a bunch of jerks after their molestation of a fat girl at majorette practice. Are they inherently so, or has their frustrating situation, boredom and lack of role models made them so? In the same way, the policeman at the end asks, if Freddy is a racist, is it really his fault? The film, correctly, refuses to provide a definitive answer.

Although curious about the strange Arab tongue she hears in the bar, Marie is initially resistant to Kader’s advances, but he is being perfectly friendly. He too has a gang of listless boys with motorbikes, and Marie expects him to be no less childishly crude than the others; instead, unlike Freddy, it seems that Kader might be able to understand her claim that “there’s nothing wrong with tenderness”. Much of their mutual sympathy is communicated through looks; indeed, we’re often presented with characters (Freddy in particular) looking, not speaking, invited to read their thoughts through their eyes (Kader knows this is the real organ of communication). Dumont has stated “speaking is not important. What are important are the emotions”. Ordinary people, he claims, do not talk a lot; Freddy himself backs this up: “it’s not easy to talk about death. And everything”.

This enigmatic strategy of looks is particularly well-served by Douche, roughly handsome, with dark powerful eyes that seem often on the verge of tears but can harden to black holes of hatred. Indeed, the non-professional cast is uniformly excellent, but the comparisons with Bresson and the mannered acting of his models are misleading. Dumont’s poetic social realism places him closer to others of his preferred film-makers – Rosselini, Pialat, Kiarostami, Pasolini. He also shares with Pasolini a fascination with the corporeal. The body, as he states, is “the cause of everything” (thus justifying the brief surprising shot of the old-woman vagina as Freddy’s mother climbs out of the tub). Freddy and Marie are never closer than when they make love or sit in quiet afterglow. The penetration shot is also quite justified, an almost touching expression of communion, perhaps the only one possible, even if divorced from emotional context (extra-textually emphasised by the use of body doubles). Elsewhere, however, Freddy is unable to express himself on any sort of non-physical level; as he lies in the MRI machine (he suffers occasional fits of epilepsy) the scan of his brain slowly morphs into nothingness – in the absence of thought, emotion is conveyed through physicality as he kicks blank-faced at a wall or throws himself in frustration from his bike (one such occasion, incidentally, providing the only truly Bressonian moment as we hear the event whilst the camera shows two onlookers, followed by a portion of the horizontal, spinning wheel).

Whilst the bleak northern European setting foreshadows the films of the Dardennes, and the ambiguous landscape shots presage those of Carlos Reygadas (albeit with less self-congratulation), Dumont’s film most strikingly calls to mind the defiantly open-ended symbolism of another of his masters, Tarkovsky. Some of this is obvious – the bird, a shot of a dead tree after love-making – but the most successful are those repeated shots of the drab landscape and empty sky. He has spoken of wanting to film the inside of his characters; unable to do so, he uses the landscape to represent their interior life. The ambiguity resides in the fact that these are bleak empty vistas but, as Marie points out, they are also beautiful. The way in which this relationship works is intended to be non-rational; when Freddy has a fit on a country road the camera unexpectedly pans up to the white sky – the effect provokes an emotional response far greater than simple recognition of some shared “nothingness”. And these shots provide a clue to the ending as well; Freddy’s redemption is by no means certain. Having fled with laughable ease from the police station, he rocks back and forth autistically in a field. The wind whips the grass, the only such instance in the film (we suppose his emotions to be in turmoil). A close-up of an ant crossing his arm and onto a leaf, followed by a view of his dirt-begrimed fingernail ties his inner life even closer to the earth. A shadow passes over his body as a cloud obscures the sun; then the rays fall on him anew. But the final shot is another landscape, still bleak, the sky still white, no different from before.

The film’s most ambiguous element, however, is the title. Fascinated by Flemish paintings depicting Christ as a peasant, Dumont had the title before the story, taken from a nineteenth-century French work controversial for stripping Christ of all spirituality, and depicting him first and foremost as a human. This chimes with Dumont’s emphasis on corporeality and on his insistence that both goodness and baseness are to be found in every person. Freddy at times seems to bear out Dumont’s Bressonian claim that he is a person capable of achieving a higher moral plane – he is indeed more aware and marginally less childish than his fellows and they look to him at times as apostles might; in the hospital room of their dying friend, one of the gang points out a reproduction on the wall of Giotto’s Raising of Lazarus, “a story about a man who came back from the dead”. Freddy’s response is a terse “shut up”. No miracles will be performed here. He spends much of the film’s summer in the second half shirtless, wounds covering his torso from the bike “accidents”, and as the sole perpetrator of the violent act at the film’s end, he takes the responsibility of the others’ racism on his own jealous and inarticulate shoulders. But, as too often with Tarkovsky, the imagery and philosophy here are suggestive rather than profound; atheist Dumont’s wish that his film might “draw the interest of young people to Jesus without moralizing or religious discourse” is most likely unrealised. The title seems designed to bestow on the film a level of metaphor which is neither necessary nor insightful, even with knowledge of the original text. The lack of sermonising, however, is central to the film’s quiet power of detachment, and no quasi-irreligious parallel is required to beef up Dumont’s quest to find beauty in the ordinary and the physical, a quest that attains a poetic quality through emphasis on unspoken communication both between characters, and between film-maker and audience.

d/sc Bruno Dumont p Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Bréhat ph Philippe Van Leeuw ed Piere Choukron, Yves Deschamps, Guy Lecome pd Frédérique Suchet m Richard Cuvillier cast David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf, Sébastian Delbaere, Samuel Boidin, Steve Smagghe, Sébastian Bailleul, Geneviève Cottreel
(1997, Fr, 92m)
posted by tom newth at

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Blogger Diana. said...

Uff i saw this film years ago in some film festival in my country but i didn´t remembered it at all (until now...)

October 1, 2009 at 1:36 AM  
Blogger tomvonloguenewth said...

have you seen any of his other films? i have not, so far, but on the basis of this one they seem as though they must be at least worth watching..

October 1, 2009 at 6:08 PM  

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