Permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969, Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnes: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’eclairage (Given : 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) was the great artist’s final gift to the world, a work constructed in total secrecy over the course of twenty years (roughly 1946–1966, during which time Duchamp had, officially, retired from the arts to pursue competitive chess playing) and unveiled to an unsuspecting public only after his death in 1968. Ever the provocateur, it’s difficult to think of this posthumous gesture as anything other than an elaborate prank, a final thumbing of the nose from the artist who had once placed a urinal in the middle of a gallery and signed it “R. Mutt.” Etant donnes is an installation piece, an objet d’art, that involves the viewer walking up to a large wooden door and peering through two small peepholes. Through the holes is an enclosed, 3-tiered diorama, approximately 10 feet long but arranged to appear much more vast, in which a nude figure lays prone in front of a lush landscape. Her head is tilted back and obscured, her legs opened so that her genitalia face directly toward the viewer. A provocation, to be sure, a la Manet’s Olympia and Courbet’s The Origin of the World, but a beautiful one. Such a description equally applies to Bruno Dumont’s second feature, L’Humanite, which references Etant donnes in its opening scenes. A scandal at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where David Cronenberg’s jury awarded acting awards to the film’s non-professional cast alongside the Dardenne brother’s Rosetta, L’Humanite arrived in the U.S. to mostly positive, if befuddled, reviews. It was Dumont’s next film, Twentynine Palms, that earned the ire of James Quandt and found itself included in his famous 2003 Artforum article “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema,” which coined the (largely useless) term “New French Extremity.” But the conflation of grunting, animalistic sex and the ever-present threat of violence is just as present in L’Humanite as that later work.
Beginning with a static shot of a figure running across the horizon line, we see Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) face-plant into some mud, before he then comes across a murder scene. The body of an 11-year-old girl is lying motionless in a field, an extreme closeup of her bloody vagina filling the screen. As in Duchamp’s piece, we are momentarily compelled to contemplate a shocking image, although the context here is much clearer, and much more disturbing. De Winter is a local police officer tasked with investigating the crime, and while there is intermittent attention paid to the case, Dumont has virtually no interest in any traditional procedural. Instead, the director proceeds to introduce Pharaon’s neighbor (and obvious object of affection), Domino (Séverine Caneele), and her loutish boyfriend, Joseph (Phillipe Tullier). Pharaon, a widower who lost his wife and child at some point in the past, tags along like a third wheel at Domino’s behest as the trio go to dinner and then a day trip to the beach. Much of the film is a detailed account of these excursions, as well as visits to the factory where Domino works, scenes of Pharaon at home with his mother, and interludes of Domino and Joseph engaging in explicit sex. The crime is eventually resolved when Joseph confesses to the rape and murder of the young girl, and the film ends on an ambiguous note of Pharaon sitting alone and handcuffed in the police station.
Far from simply referencing Duchamp’s famous work, then, Dumont also shares with him a puckish sense of gallows humor, as well as a fascination with setting up and then defying expectations, even at the risk of alienating viewers. He’s most certainly a provocateur: there’s the unsimulated sex in his first film, La Vie de Jesus, the decision to surround Juliet Binoche with the inmates of an actual asylum for Camille Claudel 1915 — either a stroke of genius or the pinnacle of bad taste, depending on who you ask, his heavy metal musical about Joan of Arc (Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc) and his eventual return to the small-town milieu of La Vie de Jesus and L’Humanite for his bizarre comedy L’il Quinquin and its sequel Coincoin and the Extra-Humans. Still, no one could accuse Dumont of insincerity, and what emerges in L’Humanite is a portrait of Pharaon as holy innocent, something like a human version of Bresson’s Balthazar. Of course, comparisons to Bresson and Dreyer are never far from Dumont, who has tried to distance himself from those greats in interviews. But the influence is there, like it or not, as they are with any director who so distinctly grasps toward transcendence. Like Bresson, albeit less formally rigorous, Dumont finds inspiration in the physical, and like Dreyer, Dumont is willing to rupture the diegesis to portray what amounts to a miracle — in this case, Pharaon levitating a few feet off the ground, a fantastical event in an otherwise grimly realistic film, and unremarked upon after it happens. There’s also the matter of Pharaon kissing Joseph, an event immediately preceding the shot of Pharaon under arrest, suggesting a kind of transference of guilt, or even sin. What’s it all add up to? Dumont films the barren suburbs of French Flanders in crisp, locked-down master shots, almost as if staring at, or into, an image for long enough will reveal some kind of truth. In his essay for the Criterion edition of the film, Nicholas Elliot calls Dumont an agnostic who values compassion and forgiveness above all else. It’s a comforting thought, but one that may be too simplistic. One senses, rather, that Dumont is rooting around in the muck, searching for grace and finding only misery — a vision of humanity always ready to crucify its next savior.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.