The first modern feature film from the Masters of Cinema collection is a controversial choice – Bruno Dumont’s bleak, provocative examination of the human condition and Christian morality through sex and death in northern France. Noel Megahey reviews.
Bruno Dumont’s La vie de Jésus certainly made an impact when it was originally released back in 1997, immediately stirring up controversy through its taboo-breaking depiction of non-simulated sex in a mainstream film. Dumont’s debut feature film however had nothing in common with a new wave of extreme French cinema that would follow in its wake, pushing the boundaries of taste and challenging the film censor. It’s a credit to the film and the approach of the director that while the shock-schlock of Baise-Moi has been all but forgotten and Catherine Breillat’s efforts become increasingly caricatural, the deeper resonances of Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus ensure that it still remains challenging to the viewer when the superficial shock value has worn off.
Bruno Dumont’s films have however, for better or worse, remained firmly within the limits established in this his first feature film, exploring the darker impulses of human behaviour, particularly those more commonly considered negative values by accepted moral standards, the director questioning whether there is nonetheless a spiritual element to be found in them, and how they relate to one’s upbringing and surroundings. Asking such Existential questions in a particularly French context inevitably brings to mind Sartre and Camus, the influence of the latter’s L’Etranger in particular being quite evident in the film’s central situation where an act of aggression is carried out against a young Arab man. Like Mersault in Camus’ novel, the motivations behind Freddy’s actions are difficult to define and can’t simply be reductively attributed to racist attitudes or even solely motivated by social apathy or jealousy when his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) is seen in the company of a young immigrant boy (Kader Chaatouf). Significantly Freddy (David Douche) also has to deal with a death at the start of the film, Cloclo, one of a group of motorbiking friends, who dies appallingly from AIDS. Dumont of course makes no effort to draw any explicit connection between Freddy’s response to his friend’s death and his subsequent actions, but considers it as one of many other possible contributing factors, including his upbringing, home environment, personal health and limited mental capacity.
Primarily however, Dumont finds expression for these complex behavioural agents in the cold, bleak landscapes of the North of France, and in particular in his home town of Bailleuil, which has also featured prominently in the subsequent Dumont films L’Humanité and most recently Flanders. There is in Dumont’s depiction of his home environment however none of the romanticised glorification of nature as an expression for spirituality that can be found in the likes of Tarkovsky and Sokurov. Nor is there any conventional beauty to be found in the film’s urgent almost frantic scenes of sexual communion and release, but rather pain and brutality. Dumont comes from the tradition of Renoir and Bresson and in place of beautiful bodies and poetic landscapes, Dumont draws on the pallid and slack-jawed faces of country bumpkins and in the damp, muddy fields of Northern France in the mizzly November rain, finding a means to express the nature of the human condition by setting pale, pink almost translucent flesh against the background of the harsh textures of brick, mortar and ploughed soil.
And this is where true consideration of controversy in Dumont’s films comes in – in his seeking to find values of truth, honesty and love in those human experiences more often considered negative – in hatred, boredom, violence, rape, murder, death and disease. Are the characters of La vie de Jésus any less likely to possess sincere inner feelings, however vile and politically incorrect their behaviour may be by accepted moral standards? Should only filtered, sensitive, liberal, balanced intellectual views be acceptable to show on the screen as being representative of human values? And how is one supposed to react to the sickness in society around us and the horrors shown on television in the greater world on a scale beyond our comprehension? Are we to deny these aspects of our humanity? Not according to Bruno Dumont. Moreover, as perhaps becomes clearer through repetition of these themes in the director’s subsequent films, the denial or repression of such impulses can cause profound psychological or even spiritual damage. It’s perhaps not that controversial a viewpoint, but the manner in which Dumont depicts it is in direct confrontation with the viewer and their sense of correctness. The director doesn’t take a balanced view, doesn’t look for the good and the bad to mitigate his characters’ behaviour, but shows life plainly, without adornment, qualifying arguments or excuses, in all its rawness and brutality.
Confronting basic philosophical questions about existence, humanity, society and morality, the themes considered by Bruno Dumont in La vie de Jésus are not new or original ones by any means. We are however perhaps not accustomed to see these issues confronted in such a provocative manner on the screen (although Pasolini certainly sets an obvious precedent in Salò), a manner that – as the title suggests – directly challenges conventional Christian notions of humanism. What Dumont does bring to the subject however is his own personal experience of these questions in relation to the world around him, specifically in the challenges that come with living in an outlying, provincial town like Bailleuil in Flanders, a location that expresses the terminal boredom and isolation not only from what is going on in the wider world, but the deeper alienation from understanding and being able to act according to one’s own true nature.
La vie de Jésus is released in the UK by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema imprint. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
The film is given a fine progressive transfer and is presented anamorphically at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The tone appears to be a little on the bright side, giving the colour a slightly pastel quality and rendering skin-tones slightly pinkish. Whether this is intended or not, it certainly marks out the contrast and texture between the delicacy of the skin tones of the performers and essential earthier tones of the environment in which they are placed. Clarity is good, allowing for strong definition in these tones, and there are very few marks of any kind – only a few stray white dustspot flecks. Sharpness is perfect, not overemphasised or boosted, but natural, allowing fine detail to be detected. Even though on a single-layer disc, there are no issues with compression artefacts, the image remaining stable throughout. This is as good as you could hope for on Standard Definition DVD.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is not the strongest, but I don’t expect that the original elements were made for hi-fidelity sound reproduction. Dialogue however is clearly audible throughout and incidental sounds – equally crucial to capturing a sense of the environment – are also effectively rendered.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font. The film can be viewed with or without the subtitles. The English translation is excellent throughout, capturing the nuances and colloquialisms of the language spoken by the youths.
It would seem that efforts were made to obtain relevant extra features for this release, but the director expressed a wish to have the film presented on without supplemental features. The only extra feature on the disc itself then is the film’s Original Trailer (1:34). It’s presented presumably as it was originally shown, cropped and slightly squashed to a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, showing clips from the film with inserts of the cast talking about their understanding of the film’s title. Also included however is a full-colour 40-page booklet included, and it’s one of the better Masters of Cinema booklets, containing highly informative working notes by the director and two in-depth interviews, all from 1997. The working notes describe in detail the impressions and influences that led the director to make the film, as well as some descriptions on what he wanted to achieve through the images, while the interviews go into more depth on the director’s personal views and how he puts them across in specific scenes. It’s fully illustrated with production stills and paintings that influenced the work. As a package, these informative features provide a much more informative and comprehensive look at the film than the usual expert commentary and essay features.
The same questions about human nature and its relationship with the world around it arise in all Bruno Dumont’s films, particularly in those basic impulses of sexuality and violence that filmmakers traditionally shy away from or treat in a glib, cinematic fashion. Whether Dumont has anything new to say on these matters is debatable, as is whether he has significantly progressed these ideas through his subsequent films where the subject matter and treatment has remained essentially the same, but the raw power of the director’s first film remains. Dumont’s treatment, directly confronting these issues without too much concern for the sensibility of the viewer or for cinematic convention, means that La vie de Jésus still has the power to shock and appal, but also to make the viewer consider their own reactions and question their own responses to the material and the characters. The first modern cinema release from the Masters of Cinema is a challenging film, but one that certainly merits inclusion in the collection.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum