There is no defined rubric to be a Bruno Dumont player: the director has spent his career weathering comparisons to Bresson and his predilection for mechanical acting, though the work of his nonprofessionals is erratic and unpredictable, equally prone to distracting facial tics as they are all-out despondency, sometimes moving beyond histrionics into a wholly unique viscerality. His perennial concerns suggest that he doesn’t necessarily build an entire film around a performer, yet still each project exhibits a sort of latent aesthetic neutrality, waiting to adapt itself to whoever is occupying the center. Emmanuel Schoté won the Best Actor award at Cannes for 1998’s L’Humanité, his one-time star-turn a then lightning rod for ideas on prerequisites for acting, and how Dumont cares little for them. The follow-up, 2003’s Twentynine Palms, tapped Yekaterina Golubeva, whose modest resumé is still leaps and bounds above Schoté’s, boasting previous collaborations with both Claire Denis and Leos Carax. It’s as if detractors think that Dumont’s often unresolved existentialist inquiries should at least have a more discernible formal undergirding, because if not, what’s the point?
Isolated out in the plains-swept provinces and on the craggy shorelines of France, it was once at least easy to ascribe Dumont’s casting decisions to his prevailing fascination with far-flung and hermetic locales. But, in 2013’s Camille Claudel 1915, the director ported Juliette Binoche out to the outskirts of Avignon, and then the two made their way over to Pas-de-Calais for 2016’s Slack Bay. Binoche herself approached the director, willing to submit herself to his rigorous, if also oblique, standards, and the result is a fascinating, scintillating effort to push past the nominal statuses of being the “Dumont film” to have a superstar at its head. Some might say the cracks and fault lines in its design are its most exciting elements, as Camille Claudel 1915 is as much about its creation as it is its chosen history. And after this new relationship had loosened, broad comedy invaded, and Slack Bay came about.
Variations on Dumont’s methodology have come to pass this last decade and change, and the director, already eager to dispel whatever grandiloquence others assume of him, has continued to fracture whatever illusion of consistency could be wrenched from his filmic construction: the depravely flawed fatalism of Twentynine Palms is rejiggered for Flandres, and swings for a more contemporaneous purview than its predecessor’s hermetic horror. The director’s past as a philosophy teacher partly explains the nominal hierarchy of his films, where he’s the ostensible lodestar, though willing to cede control to those in his company. The invisible style — clean widescreen, intuitive editing patterns, shallow focus close-ups — of everything from La vie de Jésus to P’tit Quinquin oftentimes points toward whatever performance elicits the most significant response. And thus, Camille Claudel 1915 is another in a long line of meta-commentative artifacts.
The director’s debut, La vie de Jésus, is a startlingly fully-formed work, and can function as a career-spanning Rosetta Stone, especially when it comes to the presence of David Douche, whose doughy features and perpetually reticent comportment give ample weight to his Freddy, an epileptic Ballieul layabout who does little more than have sex with his girlfriend, train his chaffinch, play snare in the local marching band, and ride his motorcycle. Technically ethnographic, La vie de Jésus also takes great pleasure in the possibilities of filming roaming bands of motorcyclists in 2.35:1, subtle genre homages more to something like Mad Max (1979), than, say Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Freddy’s inactivity also devolves into murder, a totally logical arc given Douche’s nonperformance; Dumont places the actor in scenarios that resolutely do not transcend their modest purchase. Freddy often overlooks his province from varying vantage points and exhibits no reaction, Dumont training in on Douche’s deep-set eyes, which register absolutely nothing. An underrated landscape portraitist, Dumont channels the provinces’ deadening makeup through Douche’s performance. The most significant sort of actorly physicality he engages in prior to the shocking violence of the final act is entirely unconscious, fits of epilepsy that slash through the torpor.
Rather than read as antithetical to Dumont’s newest film, France — where Léa Seydoux’s eponymous newscaster stretches her face into innumerable expressions of gratuitous emotion — is an obvious sibling of La vie de Jésus, Ballieul swapped for the oppressively shiny central-Paris. Monotony still prevails, rivulets of traffic coursing into infinity, and France then experiences something akin to an inverted Europa ‘51, where a commonplace accident still shifts beneath her feet. Douche withdraws, but Seydoux externalizes, the professional answer to the nonprofessional facial tics of Bernard Pruvost in P’tit Quinquin. The superficial contentment of Paris contrasts with the permanent ennui of Ballieul, and thus Seydoux comes to resemble the variegated, performative qualities of her city, just as Douche shoulders the crushing repression. As Dumont collapses the distance between France’s reportage and her personal life, the expressiveness similarly dissolves into a quivering, unpredictable mess of grimaces and tears.
Similarly capricious are Pruvost in both P’tit Quinquin and its follow-up Coincoin et les z’inhumains, as well as Binoche in Slack Bay, whose stabs at humor aren’t as knotty as Seydoux’s physicality in France, but nevertheless stow more just beneath the surface of pratfalls and funny voices (for lack of a better term). Once again entrenched in the minutia of these working-class, seaside provinces, Dumont stratifies his performers’ statuses to the extreme, most significantly embodied by Binoche, as the bumbling matriarch of an upper-crust lot of oblivious vacationers. A veritable grotesquerie, Dumont toggles between gnarly cannibalism and rowdy comedy, though Binoche’s presence is wielded against her own character, allegiances skewed intentionally toward the surrounding nonprofessionals.
The perennial employment of serial murders and distraught police implies at least a subtle dalliance with genre cinema, and Dumont’s commitment to chilly, unresolved mystery places him more in the company of someone like William Friedkin, rather than whichever arthouse titan is the day’s comparison. Of course, the enervating factor is ratcheted to the nth degree, subverting the status of omniscience otherwise afforded to the detectives of a policier. Quinquin and Coincoin feature Pruvost’s Commandant Van der Weyden and Philippe Jour’s Lieutenant Carpentier, who are anything but steady footholds in both series’ spiraling events — murders, inexplicable clonings, etc. — instead mirroring the absurdism, as if their characters are totally willing to give an even more inspired thrust of aforementioned absurdity, to the point where it’s hard to blame you if it slips your mind that they’re supposed to be solving a series of grisly crimes.
Not a single actor across the Dumont corpus is a cog in the machinations of aspired realism, despite whatever comparisons surface qualities may engender. Schoté, unimpeachably inexperienced, nevertheless participates in a catharsis that severs L’Humanité from reality: at one point, he levitates a few feet off the ground, a calm smile on his face. His expression is not unlike a particularly fleeting interval of Camille Claudel 1915, where Binoche watches her fellow patients with a temporary tranquility, the sun dappling her face. A Dumont performance is motivated by circumstances, but such external factors are wisely sinuous, sometimes entirely untraceable until the film’s conclusion. Speaking of La vie de Jésus, Dumont stated: “When I film Freddy, I film all men… the individual is a means to access the ideal.” However, in this same explanation, the director explains that he specifically selects an insignificant representative to access this elusive “ideal”; even the “everyman” is a stylistic construction, so he singles out the landscape players who may dot the distance, those whom you might make out in your periphery while passing through one of these Northern channel towns. Which is to say, Dumont isn’t making inroads in some sort of nouveau school of acting; he’s creating a world.