Humanity goes to Hollywood

Bruno Dumont appears, at first glance, as sullen and taciturn as the characters in his controversial films. But a quiet chat with Ronald Bergan reveals a very different man... one keen to work with Tom Cruise
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The Independent Culture

I admit it - I had to be dragged to see Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, which won the Grand Prix and the Best Actor and Actress at Cannes in 1999. Like the title of Dumont's first feature, The Life of Jesus, about a group of dispossessed young people, his second, L'Humanité, sounded pretty portentous.

I admit it - I had to be dragged to see Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, which won the Grand Prix and the Best Actor and Actress at Cannes in 1999. Like the title of Dumont's first feature, The Life of Jesus, about a group of dispossessed young people, his second, L'Humanité, sounded pretty portentous.

The film's length, 148 minutes, and its subject - the police investigation of the rape, mutilation and murder of a young girl, now tragically even more topical - also seemed a deterrent. In addition, I remembered a colleague telling me that he and some other British critics had got the giggles during the screening at Cannes, and that he had met Dumont, who was "a miserable git". Others I spoke to either adored the film or hated it. The announcement of the three prizes for L'Humanité at Cannes was greeted with both cheers and jeers. This month's Sight & Sound has taken the rare step of printing two reviews, one positive and one negative.

As it happens, I loved it. L'Humanité is a visually arresting, deeply moving, often discomforting portrait of an extremely sensitive man in an insensitive environment. It is a film where gestures speak louder than words, including a close physical intimacy between men without a suggestion of homoeroticism. (Which may well have been what provoked the critics' nervous tittering.)

My first meeting with Dumont, however - at a dinner given in his honour at the French Institute in London - is not auspicious. The good-looking 42-year-old seems as sullen and taciturn as his characters, and answers questions monosyllabically. Mind you, he's surrounded by a group of people chattering away, mostly in English, a language in which he has no proficiency.

On stage for the Q&A session, after the film, he's equally non-communicative, mainly because the convoluted questions were conveyed to him through a translator.

Our meeting in the distributor's offices the next day is a tête á tête - no translator, no intimidating English spoken. As the interview progresses, Dumont's hitherto dour expression softens, and, while not exactly loquacious, he speaks in a flowing and relaxed manner.

"You're not talkative by nature," I say. "How do you communicate with your actors?" "I work instinctively. The process of selection is fundamental. When I've taken the decision to work with a particular person, I don't need to communicate with them much. There are hardly any rehearsals. There's very little psychology. I explain the characters vaguely, but I don't want to spoil their performances by saying 'do this, do that'. It's tiring. There are very few takes. My actors don't speak too much. It's their reactions, their looks that are important. I mistrust language."

None of the three leads had ever acted before. Schotté was in the army, Séverine Caneele, as the woman whom he desires, was a factory worker, and Philippe Tullier, her rough bus-driver lover, was a roofer. "These people in reality are rather ordinary looking, but the camera transforms them. There are certain shots when Schotté looks very handsome, and when Séverine looks very attractive, and in other shots she is ugly. Beautiful actresses don't interest me. They are always the same."

I ask if he felt any responsibility towards them after the filming. For example, the boy in The Life of Jesus is now very heavily into drugs and alcohol, though Dumont insists he had led a troubled life prior to the film. The actors in L'Humanité, after having been fêted at film festivals have returned to their normal lives. "They didn't find it difficult to return to work, because making a film for them was not glamorous. It's not champagne. It's hard work."

Both Dumont's features are not only set in his home town of Bailleul, in the north of France near Lille, but mostly in the same street, rue de Winter, named after the local realist painter (1849-1924), whom the director has made the policeman's great-grandfather. It is undeniable that Dumont knows the area and the inhabitants from the inside, never patronising them. But what has he in common with these disadvantaged people?

"It was a small town where there wasn't much division between the classes, although there was a social distance between us, because I was the son of a doctor. But I was attracted to these kind of people. I had my motorbike, and would hang out with the gang on weekends. I know I show the animalism and cruelty of them, but if I made a film on the bourgeoisie it would be worse than that. They are more hypocritical. In the popular milieu there is a greater human and natural expression."

What was his educational background? "I couldn't get into cinema school so I studied philosophy and taught. Then I started making industrial videos. Very austere technical films, which explained to the workers how a machine worked etc.

"I did that for about 10 years. It taught me to see beauty in things that are not known for their beauty. I looked for emotion even in machines. I don't look for the beautiful, I look for the truth. I look for significance in the insignificant. It was then I learnt to work with amateur actors. I made one short, which was refused by every festival. It was too experimental and had no narrative. My decision to make The Life of Jesus about people I knew came when I realised I had made a mistake."

People have compared his uncompromising view of life and his use of non-actors to Robert Bresson, something which annoys Dumont. "Bresson is unique. I don't see that my cinema has anything in common with him. He didn't influence me. I discovered him too late. My influences in my twenties were more Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñuel, and Alain Resnais." Anyway, Dumont maintains that there are no intentional laughs in Bresson, whereas he thinks there are comic moments in L'Humanité, but "audiences are either afraid to laugh or, when they do, they do so guiltily like schoolboys in church".

Surprisingly, despite his lack of English, Dumont's next film will be shot in Los Angeles in English, a complete departure from his earlier films. "I want to work with the great names of the American cinema. Someone like Tom Cruise. Why not? I want to try another kind of cinema. It interests me to remove these actors from their usual mode. There are some stars who like to do that. L'Humanité got good reviews in America so it might create interest in my third film. Some American producers are intrigued for commercial and artistic reasons, but I could never work with a producer who asked me to cut anything. The artistic decisions must be made by the film's director."

At that moment, Dumont's nine-year-old son comes into the room. I wonder aloud if he' s seen L'Humanité, given the violent bonking sequences and the large, lengthy close-up of female genitals. He says he's seen it twice, and particularly likes the scene when strikers confront Pharaon, and one of them says, "You're too bloody stupid to be a cop". For the first time, Dumont allows himself a broad smile. It suits him.