Bruno Dumont’s Material World


Love it or hate it, Bruno Dumont’s Humanité is a movie to be reckoned with, a relentless, profoundly disturbing and oddly thrilling two and a half hours of cinema. “What I tried to do was maintain a kind of ambiguity throughout the entire film,” says the intensely focused yet boyish Dumont. No kidding—it’s precisely this ambiguity that’s been driving viewers mad since the movie premiered at Cannes last year, but it’s also what drives Humanité forward. Dumont sees his film’s central question—is the protagonist Pharaon, a haltingly nervous cop who doesn’t even slightly resemble a cop, guilty of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl?—in purely philosophical terms. “Pharaon is dogged by the possibility that he’s the guilty one. The point is that everyone has the power to kill. Pharaon is an extraordinary character—he doesn’t do anything really, but he takes all of humanity on his shoulders. The film follows his progression, to the point where he gets outside of himself, and changes a little—like Freddie in La Vie de Jésus [Dumont’s first feature], who remains an awful person but who’s illuminated by this little ray of light at the end.”

‘I’m forever filming boring, uninteresting things. When you shoot a beautiful landscape or a handsome actor, the camera has nothing to say.’

The philosophical remove is unsurprising, since Dumont studied and eventually taught philosophy, but his heart was always in cinema. “I think I always wanted to make films, since I was a child, and I spent a lot of time at the movies when I was young,” he says. “When I was a student in Paris, of course I went a lot to the Cinémathèque [Française], and the films that made the biggest impression on me were by Bergman, Rossellini, Pasolini, Fellini—filmmakers who really understood the cinema, with their own particular style, who spoke of man and his place within existence, within life.” Dumont is a big Kubrick fan. “I was astounded by his complete mastery, by the unbelievable complexity of his films, and his understanding of the medium. Each of his films is a real experience of time, of space, of sound.”

But there’s another powerful influence on Dumont’s work, one that goes a long way to accounting for the extraordinary tactility of his films (as you walk out of Humanité, your head might just be reeling with visions of drab apartment houses, folds of skin, trees, tabletops). “Teaching philosophy didn’t interest me at all. I tried my hand at journalism, and then I became an assistant on industrial films, marketing films—I was the guy who went to get the sandwiches. At that point, I understood absolutely nothing about film technique—I was an intellectual, and my tendency was to stand back and observe. So this was my apprenticeship. I started to write the scripts—films about how to make caramel candy, things like that. Then I started to make the films myself, and I did it for 10 years. I was forced to interest myself in things that were inherently uninteresting. I think that’s where my materiality comes from—it’s why I’m always looking for things to film that are drab, ordinary, and consequently it’s why the crews on my movies get so bored: I’m forever filming boring, uninteresting things. When you shoot a beautiful landscape or a handsome actor, the camera has nothing to say. Because it’s the actual process of filmmaking, the linking together of images, that makes things beautiful. That’s cinema.” And it’s this careful attention to the material world that dictated the slow pace of Humanité. “Flaubert once said that in order for something to become interesting, you simply have to look at it. That’s what determined the rhythm. I was trying to find the natural rhythm of things.”

Even though Dumont remains an avid moviegoer, he doesn’t consider himself a cinephile, and he has no use for French film culture. “It’s a family, closed off from the world, that I don’t consider myself a part of. Godard’s films, for example, don’t interest me at all, even though he speaks very intelligently about the cinema. And when he talks about the death of cinema, I have the feeling that he’s the one who’s dying. The cinema isn’t dying. It’s too strong to die, because it’s something that allows people to understand the world around them. I’m very enthusiastic. The important thing is to integrate new forms and attitudes and sensibilities into the cinema.” Which Dumont is trying to do with his next film, an apocalyptic murder mystery called The End, to be shot in L.A., in English, with (he hopes) big stars. “It will be very, very different from what I did in my first two films. I want to use the forms and appearances of American cinema, which is so important to people today, so that I can speak to a greater public.” Dumont also wants to pick up the pace. “Humanité is very slow, and now I want to make a film that’s fast—there’s as much power in speed as there is in slowness.” Which is not to say that the most rigorously materialist filmmaker around is going Hollywood. “The interior of a film can stay very austere, but have the appearance of a Hollywood film.”

Tell that to Jerry Bruckheimer. As for the theme of The End, which rumor has it involves a meteor shower that threatens to destroy the City of Lost Illusions, it will be the same one that animates La Vie de Jésus and Humanité. “Isn’t every real work of art about the same things? Really, there’s nothing but sex, love, and evil.”