Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dumont, Duality, and Other Conundrums

Flandres - (Bruno Dumont, France, 2006)

Is there any filmmaker working today as bewitching and befuddling and obstinately French as Bruno Dumont? On the one hand, his work is as unique and ambitious as any in contemporary cinema; on the other, his films seem to espouse a worldview so fatalistic and harsh that the viewer can't help but wonder if Dumont is a) borderline crazy, b) full blown crazy, or c)putting us on. It's a vision of reality in which sudden, lethal violence lurks around every corner; in which the human capacity for callousness and brutality is unlimited and just barely concealed beneath the surface.

This constant threat of menace isn't all there is to life, though - there is also, always, solitude. Dumont's characters are loners, and they are often inarticulate loners. When they do converse it doesn't go far beyond the usual quotidian patter. What they lack in speech they more than make up for in sex; a good portion of screen time in any Dumont film is devoted to the characters' scoring. Getting regularly laid, though, doesn't seem to make them much happier, leaving the American viewer more than a little deflated. If sex and violence don't get these people off, then what does?

So there you have the basic ingredients for the disaffected, cigarette smoking, black-sunglasses-and-beret brand of Continental pessimism. La vie, she is empty and meaningless, no? Except that with Dumont, it's not that simple, or it least doesn't appear to be. What makes Dumont a special case is the inclusion of a kind of furtive mysticism - at first glace, it's barely there, but when you pick up on the cues, you realize it's everywhere. It's almost transcendental - the way he hangs on a characters face, or highlights their posture or stride, the constant juxtaposition of figure and landscape. This alone isn't really new; Bresson, Dreyer, and several others have used the same kind of spooky gaze (of the camera and it's subjects), and there's a whole new generation of filmmakers carrying the torch (Pedro Costa, Carlos Reygadas, Lucretia Martel, et al.) But Dumont ups the spiritual ante by providing some details that can only be understood as supernatural. I'm thinking in particular of the shot of Pharoan (in Humanite) levitating - his feet floating a few inches off the ground, and there's a similar echo in Flandres, when Barbe stands on her tippy-toes and appears to be attempting a similar supra-terrestrial stunt. This is following a sequence in which she claims to have been with Andre, her simpleminded paramour and the co-protagonist of the film, as he raped and killed peasants and ultimately left his companion for dead.

This makes for confusing stuff, since the rest of the film appears to be so staunchly realist. But it's very carefully constructed, and one needn't re-watch the film to see how meticulously Dumont has set up some of these little reveals. All it really takes is a little post-screening reflection to realize how the cross-cutting served to construct a kind of extra-dimensional connection between the characters and their respective milieux. It's been there all along - the back and forth between the lush green of Flandres and the harsh browns and reds of the unnamed (but clearly Middle-Eastern, and likely Iraq) desert locale where Andre is serving, and the escalation of violence - for Andre, killings and a rape, for Barbe, a sudden nervous breakdown.

So what, then, is really going on with this vision? Typically, Dumont is tight-lipped about personal interpretations of his films, but I think he lets his hand show more than he's aware. There's something covertly humane about his pictures, a suggestion that while violence and despair are never far, neither then is hope and redemption. This balancing act, when properly considered, can be seen as either deft or brazenly pedantic, and I'm still not sure where I stand on the matter.

The central dynamic is the resonance of human traits - they are inescapable, but largely hidden from view. War is petty rivalry writ large. Casual sex is the square root of brutal rape. Loneliness the only universal constant; it's in the hollow eyes of the characters and it reverberates through every landscape. We don't see tenderness in Dumont's films, really, but we do see the beginnings of tenderness - and in those beginnings lie the hope that sustains life.

This, at least, works in Humanite. To a large extent, that film's success had to do with it being possibly the most perfectly-cast film of the decade. But ultimately it was more than that - the Dumontian signature mood of dread was somehow leavened by the frequently ecastatic compostions and surefooted rythmn - its mystery seemed to gently suggest an underlying sacredness, even in the most awful things. You could question Dumont's apprent philosophy and still appreciate the nuance in his craft.

Likewise, in Flanders, casting proves to be a make-or-break condition. Here it doesn't fly; Samuel Boidin doesn't have nearly the same kind of arresting countenance as Emmanuelle Schotte. But here again, that doesn't get to the heart of the problem. Too often, it appears that Dumont's method is exposing the limits of his ideas. A filmmaker can only present us with shots of brutality, sex, and hollow eyes for so long before we begin to recognize a paucity of ideas. The insistence on certain tropes begins to resemble harping, and Dumont's obsession with the duality of humanity is reaching the limits of his cinematic inventiveness. His previously dextrous probing of the yin-and-yang is becoming clumsy and slipshod. Andre is a brute, but also a gentle, contemplative man. Barbe's outward behavior is that of an unbalanced hussy, but she's also saintlike in her sensitivity to suffering (she even seems capable of percieving it from across a continent.)

Here I could digress into an examination of the creepy class-bias and condescension evident in Flandres, but that's a stickier and less-pressing issue at the moment. This would also probably be a good opportunity to discuss my own feelings about the problematic friction between the pretensions to realism and the utter lack of naturalistic plausibility - in behavior, events, and so forth - but that's a whole other wheel of cheese and a bit beyond the current case at hand, and anyway, that has more to do with my own aesthetic tastes than it does with objection to this film. I will note, however, that this was pitfall largely avoided in Humanite, and even somewhat in Twentynine Palms.

So it's not the end of the world - Dumont has been mired in the muck of Flanders - worse things could happen. In the spirit of his films, I'm willing to keep an unblinking eye trained on his future efforts. It remains to be seen if Dumont can wring new life from his exacting methods and obsessions, and I eagerly await his next film.