If Slack Bay (due for UK release this weekend) is to be your first sample of the cinema of French auteur Bruno Dumont, then it should come with a large caveat. Like his previous film/TV series P’tit Quinquin it is by all accounts a farcical slapstick par excellence, but both represent a shift in tone from Dumont, who, previously, was best known for one of the most concentrically austere filmographies of any director in world cinema over the last 20 years. Seasoned Dumont devotees will no doubt reference the streak of absurdism and gallows humour that was perhaps harbinger for his current volte-face, but there can be no question that he was first and foremost a decidedly serious arthouse practitioner.
Starting his career with a series of films that caused immediate ripples in the festival circuit for their hypnotic juxtaposition of beauty with brutality, their exemplary formal quality, and their queasy take on morality and religiosity, The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanity (1999), Twentynine Palms (2003), and Flanders (2007) propelled Dumont right up there to the first rung of French auteurs. These four films have their strengths and weaknesses, their moments of lucidity and their touches of gaucheness, but the three films that followed – Hadewijch (2009), Hors Satan (2011), and Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) – found Dumont at the peak of his craft, and have a very strong case for being the finest trio of films made by any French filmmaker (if not, European filmmaker) over the last decade.
Hadewijch, in particular, is a film at the highest pitch of intelligence and a nuanced parable for our times. Its ingenious scenario sees young French novice Céline (a mesmeric Julie Sokolowski), banished from her convent for excessive piety, propelling her into a circle of Islamic jihadists. For a film about such a combustible subject matter, Hadejwich is so mature and respectful, as it almost totally depoliticises the context of its onscreen narrative, for an immersive and sensory portrait of the quest for divinity and the pathology of fanaticism.
Dumont is an interior filmmaker – a conjurer of moods – and interested in the abstract communication of ideas and ‘meaning’. You’ll certainly never find any of his characters transparently ventriloquising the film’s exposition and themes; in this respect, he’s the complete antithesis of Christopher Nolan’s “control freak” form of genre cinema. In fact, Dumont almost totally refutes the three-act conflict-and-resolution paradigms from more industrial modes of storytelling. He seems content to let his camera fixate on faces, landscapes and milieus, although there are characters, actions and narrative development.
Symbolising Dumont’s mature, almost oblique, dramaturgy in Hadewijch is that it’s the complete opposite of the obvious tyrannous religious fable it might have been. Céline is not cast out from her convent by brutal nuns, but by a caring order who fear for Céline’s excessive devotion to God, and simply want her to re-enter normal society and gain some perspective of a young woman’s life in Paris. Equally, as Céline begins to become immersed in the world of two Muslim brothers from the banlieues, there is never any attempt to colour the brothers as malignant or predatory. It is more that they are simply awed and moved to have found such grace and zeal in a Christian worshipper that they may only have encountered in their own religion. Any of the radicalising that might have taken place is kept purposely off-screen – and the film is all the richer for that. The dreamlike final act where Céline has two elliptical, highly contrasting moments of possible epiphany segues perfectly into Dumont’s followup film, Hors Satan.
Even less of a narrative piece than Hadewijch, Hors Satan is a scorching, hypnotic evocation of how landscape, morality and character can all merge into one indivisible dramatic whole. Taking as its nominal conduit the quite brilliant actor (or, should I say, presence) David Dewaele, simply known as “le gars” (the guy), it is a bleakly picturesque fable of a vagrant man who acts as both messiah and scourge to an isolated community on France’s Opal Coast.
Once again, the retrieval of meaning and a clear cause-and-effect rationale is elusive, as Dewaele’s character embarks on a series of cryptic acts with the villagers that cover the entire range of the moral spectrum. Although the work is at times startlingly dry and serious, there are some wonderfully absurd moments that augur the career turn Dumont was to make. Dewaele’s biblical tryst with a randy hitchhiker is too weird to be wholly sinister, and the scene where he loiters suspiciously around, on the farmstead where he’s just shot dead the abusive father of a local girl, is amusing for the simple reason that Dewaele looks so listless and shifty that the police must surely be querying his presence.
The style of acting is another of the distinctive hallmarks of Dumont’s cinema. He refutes one of the given presumptions of acting which is to be “other than oneself”. Dumont, until Camille Claudel 1915 at any rate, adored casting local non-professionals who almost couldn’t act, but could project presence, authenticity and humanity. Dumont even caused a storm at Cannes in 1999 when his leading man for Humanity, Emmanuel Schotté, won Best Actor, despite palpably not “performing” in his role at all (amusingly, Schotté never acted again – not a bad success ratio for his acting career).
It’s almost as if Dumont’s attitude to conventional acting mirrors that to his take on conventional storytelling: it’s all artifice, industry. He prefers actors to be like all the other inanimate things in his mise en scène: untainted presences that can project abstract ideas. That’s why Julie Sokolowski is so compelling and convincing as the necessarily pious young girl at the heart of Hadewijch’s journey into the heart of religious fundamentalism.
And then, of course, there’s David Dewaele. What a majestic, haunting vessel he is in Hadewijch and Hors Satan: sheer presence personified. In a sense, Hors Satan can be boiled down to the idea that simply watching Dewaele be is an innately interesting experience – and with the skill of Dumont and Dewaele it is. Dewaele tragically died at the age of only 36 in 2013, and Dumont paid a beautiful tribute to him which could in many ways act as a fitting epigraph for the strangely affecting cinema of Dumont as a whole:
He was not the talkative type. But his earthly presence, at once tender and threatening, was immediate. The word that comes to mind: a lord, violent, dark, but inhabited by an exceptional sensitivity.