In Search of Grace

By John Bradburn

vie-de-jesus-bruno-dumont.jpgLa Vie de Jesus, 1997

La Vie de Jesus was Bruno Dumont's debut feature. It is a cold hard and crisp film about aimless youth in Northern France. It follows an epileptic young man – Freddy – as he spends time with his girlfriend, family and friends. Freddy succumbs to a violent rage and creates a situation in which he needs to flee. The film culminates with a redemptive epiphany in a Flandres field. It is a film of sparse simplicity and measured construction. Its very minimalism leaves the audience free to make the connections to its dense allegorical possibilities.

Bruno Dumont emerged from almost nowhere in 1997 with this stark vision of humanity tinged with a religious sense of possibility and hope. Dumont had become disillusioned with his previous career making corporate video and teaching philosophy on the side. To alleviate this boredom Dumont took to writing a novel that would become the treatment for La Vie de Jesus.

Freddy is an inactive central character for the majority of the film. He is an observer of events until his one and only action dooms him. Dumont uses him as a cipher for the state of a certain part of Western European youth. Under educated and with few skills they are left to drift in the wind through the long streets of empty towns. They offer no attempt to escape. Freddy refuses to look for employment and so do his friends. Their rage slowly turns to the North African immigrants who are part of their town.

vie-de-jesus-bruno-dumont-2.jpgLa Vie de Jesus, 1997

Dumont creates his film within long highly composed images. He places within these landscapes the faces of non actors. These faces and landscapes become the texture of the film. They are not the faces of trained professionals but the faces of real people struggling with real events. In these simple acts of casting Dumont heightens the sympathy for these characters. They are real human beings in all senses. The artifice of cinema with its system of stars and performances is instantly negated.

These performers give studied performances based on their physicality. They act in the most literal sense as dialogue is cut to a bare minimum. They move as if under water as if struggling with the weight of existed. Throughout the whole performance they seem to be involved in some religious act like monks preparing for prayer. Slowly and meaning fully created actions as if all of life has become part of a larger ritual. Fixing a car is given the same weight as sex, eating, violence. The emptiness of a world devoid of God weighs heavily upon them. There is no differentiation to these acts without God to give meaning to them. All are equal empty rituals calling out to the Heavens for an answer. In a scene within the walls of the towns ruined church Kader, a North African immigrant, discusses with Marie, Freddy’s sometime girlfriend, how she is involved with Freddy. She says she does not have a boyfriend. She does not relate sex to love or to anything - it is just another event in life. She hugs Kader; her movements seem robotic, ritualistic and slow as if she is trapped in a repeating loop of action her body carried along on the tide of expectation. He looks to the sky as he hugs her and Dumont cuts to a brief image of clouds over head as seen through the empty windows of the church. One is reminded of the line by Sylvia Plath - I look to God but the sky is empty.

vie-de-jesus-bruno-dumont-3.jpgLa Vie de Jesus, 1997

The characters exist as bodies devoid of God for most of the film. La vie de Jesus deliberately avoids the metaphysical. When Freddy is offered the option to be treated by a doctor for his epilepsy he rips the equipment from his scalp refusing answers that could peer into his soul. The metaphysical is routinely denied by the characters themselves who seek distraction in motorbike racing, bands, sex and violence. The following scenes see Freddy explicitly injure himself and have brutal, physical sex with Marie. He is above all a creature trapped and obsessively observed just like his pet finch Leo. When Freddy finally is subjected to the CAT scan and the doctors get to see deeply in to his brain there seem to be no answers just more physicality. The soul cannot be found.

Dumont holds an explicit close up of their love making for just long enough for it to become meaningless, robotic, inhumane and devoid of emotion. Images follow of Marie and Freddy's blank faces in close up as they studiously avoid eye contact. Next a simple image of a broken tree. Then a close up of them in a post coital embrace as Freddy tries to move nearer to Marie. She gazes into the distance and ignores him. Connection on an emotional level seems impossible here. Later, when Kader continues to pursue Marie, she rebukes him by trying to force his hand in her pants. She understands the desires of men and her place within them by stating "Is this what you want?". Kader, shocked by her sexuality, runs off saying she is crazy. As if to see through to the truth, to the metaphysical, is in some way an insane act.

Even when Marie is desired by Kader his desire is not shown in any way as romantic. He knows nothing about her other than her image, her body. He is the same as Freddy in his lack of emotional communication. There is no difference between Freddy, his friends and Kader other than the colour of his skin. Deep down they are the same.

vie-de-jesus-bruno-dumont-4.jpgLa Vie de Jesus, 1997

The violence that propels Freddy in the later stages of the film is motivated by an observance of an interaction of bodies. He does not ask questions or investigate to any deeper. The flesh has its own voice and its own answers. There is no need to investigate further. A motif that is repeated later during a police interrogation where the officer seems uninterested in the reasons for the action but is content purely with his hard, solid evidence.

The nearest these bodies come to some meaning is in the order and rhythm of the band that they all play for. This seems to represent a use for the bodies as part of a larger organization. They move as a single organism and all individuality is lost. Meaning is superimposed on to material existence through ritual. Much like religion itself.

vie-de-jesus-bruno-dumont-5.jpgLa Vie de Jesus, 1997 

Dumont fills the film with strong, stark images and moments of grace for an audience to seek meaning from them. One such scene, seemingly unrelated to the narrative, is Freddy's mother’s naked body as it emerges from the bath – all the more unsettling because she is alone in the bathroom and we are not being presented with any other point of view than that of the filmmaker. The image is difficult. It focuses on her groin and we do not see her face as she emerges and leaves frame. The image lingers not on the flesh but the ripples of the bath water. Again the shot is held for long enough for it to transcend its original meaning and open up a space for the contemplation of the audience. While the characters actively avoid the metaphysical we as an audience are given the spaces between the images to contemplate their allegories.

Dumont pieces his film together like a master craftsman. Not one image or sound is wasted but each flows seamlessly into each other building up simple visual poems that lead in to dense possible realms of contemplation. La Vie De Jesus is a film without God but one which leaves open the doors for Him to return – quietly longing for spirituality and meaning to descend once more to the earth.

John Bradburn is a writer and filmmaker. He is based in Birmingham and lectures at Staffordshire University.