By 2016 Bruno Dumont had directed nine feature films ranging from realist to experimental works. His major preoccupations in these movies were racism, religious fundamentalism, and questions of the sacred and the profane, all of which he represents using a style that focuses mainly upon the on-screen interrogation of physicality in brutally intimate terms. His films feature frank and provocative representations of violence and dispassionate portrayals of sometimes non-simulated sexual encounters, all while being fundamentally aggressive and devoid of romance or empathy. A common theme in his works are antagonistic social relationships that disintegrate into situations so violent that they have invited scrutiny from critics internationally. In his two last movies, P’tit Quinquin (2014) and Slack Bay (Ma Loute, 2016), Dumont seems to be more interested in comic structure, but he still addresses these same themes. Slack Bay takes what he began with P’tit Quinquin to an extreme, adding a comically surreal twist to the tensions between Europe’s rich and poor.
The following interview with Dumont was conducted after the premiere of Slack Bay at Cannes in 2016.
I think it’s really interesting that you have this kind of broad comedy with these characters who populate this beautiful landscape and imagery. Some people are going to love the film and some people will be infuriated by it. I’m sure that you’re well aware of the kind of critical divide that it creates.
I think that my only choice is the choice of sincerity. I really made it the way that I feel it. It’s not conventional and it’s not consensual so it’s not made to please. However, it’s not made to infuriate either. I am not a provocateur. I haven’t made this film in order to provoke anyone. It’s not out of any kind of perversion but I just made it the way I feel it because I feel that’s how it is. It’s a matter of human relationships and life. In life some people get along with you and some don’t; some reject you. I think that the manipulation and the mischievous action would be to please at any price and to do something in order to find some consensus about your film if you make it the way that you feel it. Until then it’s up to people to either follow you or reject you.
You recently became more interested in comedy but you refer still to the same concepts and themes that we can see in your previous works, such as the questions of grace and God’s presence.
The themes are the same, the philosophy is the same, the stakes are the same, and sometimes even the landscapes or the characters are the same but the mode of expression has changed. It’s just a different way of approaching the same material, the material being human nature. Exploring the ridiculous side of it just makes it more immediate. What’s comic is something that you can perceive immediately in a theater while watching the film, whereas drama involves a less clear and deeper, darker perception and relationship to things. So having this funny side, having this comic side, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s shallower; it’s still very deep. When a character falls down it also says something about his soul but it’s just the more immediate level of it. I didn’t always think that; I used to think that I had to be serious in order to deal with serious matters. Now I realise that I can also deal with serious matters by exploring the first level of it and it’s more complete if I also explore the appearance. I don’t stop dealing with the content but I have a more complete approach to it. The term that seems most accurate to me is tragic comic. It is comedy but it also says a lot about tragedy and its different layers.
In the film you juxtapose a complex, decadent, bourgeois family with a violent, cannibalistic, working class family. There is a particular scene where this working class man bows and they are looking him over, romanticising an image of him. How important is class in the film? Is it particular to France? What do you think are the implications when aristocrats or the upper classes romanticise the working class?
My cinema is anything but social. Cinema has nothing to do with reality. It’s so over the top. The grotesque is so present in the depiction of the social features of these characters that there’s no way you can take them seriously. On one hand, they are cannibals and on the other hand they are total fools. By pushing it and making it bolder than anything (else), all that I do is to try and reach this spectrum of human nature. Both of them are inside of us all. If you really dig into yourself then you will find the cannibals in some place, and if you climb up you will find some foolish, aristocratic, posh person. They’re in all of us and I thought that by using the grotesque I would no longer have to explain myself any more and justify the fact that there is nothing of reality in it. It’s just the expressiveness and the expression that is taken to the most extreme part of it to describe human beings, so that’s how it is. I have nothing against this part of the world and I’m not depicting anything specific about this place which happens to be the region where I was born. I have to start with one person and I start with the one who is in front of me. I have nothing against the bourgeois either, and when Bruegel paints a kind of monstrous person it’s not that he had monsters around him in Flanders. It’s just that it’s his way of depicting the fullness of human nature.
Coming back to your comment on the relation between your cinema and politics, there is this argument that your cinema is apolitical and that you are not at all interested in politics. Some hold the view that your cinema is political but it is political on other levels. Maybe you’re not very interested in the social aspect but the methods and the forms and the data that you are using make it very political. I’m just curious to know if you have any thoughts or anything to say about your cinema and its relationship to politics. Or do you have any conceptualisations of politics that could help us to understand your cinema?
Well, personally, the level in which I am interested is the state of nature. I’m on the side of the cannibals so if there is some political aspect to what I do then it’s related to the extremes of the world. I’m not on the actual social or political road. I’m on the extreme side of it but of course then there are incidences. There is a political incidence in my expression that is related to the world as it exists but if there is this link then it’s the catharsis. It’s just like in the Greek theatre when we laugh at ourselves and we laugh at the ridiculous aspects of ourselves. So I can overlook the politics, but then I am not dealing with society and that’s what I think the role of art or cinema should be; entertainment in itself seems to be a mistake for me. We are not here to run away; the function of art or cinema is not to run away from reality but to put it into question and to be relieved from the weight of reality. That’s my view but I don’t know if filmmaking is about that much today.
The representation of sex in your previous work corresponded very much to this state of nature. For example, rape has been a very regular feature of your movies, as has been spontaneous sex that happens without preparation. However, right now it appears to me that you’ve become more conservative with regard to sexuality, such as how in this movie you talk more about love, a cultural concept.
Well, yeah, there used to be intercourse in my cinema and now it’s not there anymore because it’s always interesting to take something out. It’s interesting because, as I said, cinema is pure abstraction so it’s always interesting to see it in terms of something that’s lacking. I like working on the idea of things that are lacking and the reason why Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) and Billie (Raph) don’t make love is because even the gender is not specified. Their relationship is pure romanticism because it’s not defined or anchored in reality. It doesn’t happen and I like the idea of working in the abstract. I didn’t film the intercourse between Andre Van Billicon (Fabrice Luchini) and his sister but I still mention it.
I think it’s very interesting how you work simultaneously with both professional and non-professional actors. It’s amazing to see how this dynamic between them also reflects the dynamic in your themes. For example, I’m thinking of how you explore something primitive about human nature but at the same time also aspects of social structures.
Well, yeah, of course. It’s a very sensitive question, the casting, which is why the process is so long. First of all you have the human material. You have some expressiveness that has to come from them, from their bodies, from their faces. When you choose them first they need to have an interesting presence on the screen. This is something that’s quite easy to find but then there is the performance to consider. This is concerned with the way that they are going to act in a given role but it is not because they are non-professional that they will have to be themselves in order to enable themselves. They are just a step away from what they are, so when I take a worker to play a fisherman he’s not exactly a fisherman but he can perform. He must have this ability to perform in order to be the right person for me. By acting as a fisherman he is protected because he is giving his body and his voice and his temperament to the screen, to the film. Having this makes them finally do the same thing that the professional actors do. The only difference is a matter of status, with some being professionals and some not. For me in a way I would say that when some people say that an actor is professional they may mean that they are a “pro” as in that they are skilled and they do their job well. By that definition some non-professionals are more pro than some professionals.
It’s also very interesting to see the dynamic between the very specific work, such as the gestures of your actors on the one hand, and the very complex dynamic between these actors and the landscape on the other. How preconceived is this relationship or how organic is it during the filmmaking process?
Well, almost everything is preconceived. There is no way you can come on set and just see what happens. I mean, even if there is some accident we must be able to incorporate the accident into what has been predesigned so I really predesign everything. I really draw all of my shots very precisely and in terms of preparing the crew I need to know exactly what I’m going to do. If I want to travel somewhere I have to say so in advance. I cannot just arrive there on the spot and say what I want to do that day. Everything is exactly conceived and designed. The only unknown part of it is how the actors are going to perform and this is why I expect that once we are on the set we will need to adjust for that. We adjust that to really tune their performances and to have them offer different layers of their performances or different levels of it for us to use afterwards. All of these have to be preconceived so that we can focus on the other aspects once we are on the set.
When you’re asked about references in your films you talk about painters. While watching this movie, however, I wondered about, for example, Dino Risi and Federico Fellini. Were there any cinematic references that you imported?
Sure, well the very names that you quoted are the masters, the fathers. Fellini, Dino Rizzy, and Pier Paolo Pasolini are the Italian masters but I’m also interested in the Burlesque Cinema. I don’t see films much, which is not … because I’m pretentious or out of some vanity. It’s just that all my time and energy is taken by my own films so I don’t really go and see other films. There’s something that happens when you start making films where the viewer inside of you just dies and you find your inspiration in other places, such as how I can find them in paintings. I can find inspiration in everyday life, in very simple things that I experiment with as a human being rather than as a viewer of films. I don’t see films or early films. It’s true that I’m interested in the beginnings of cinema, the sort of primitive cinema is still something that I can find inspiration in.