Posts Tagged ‘Bruno Dumont’

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Hors Satan is the sixth feature film by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Dumont’s previous films were mostly shot in rural landscapes, often in his native country, and featured marginalised characters undergoing both extreme trauma and spiritual transformation. He has a particular directing style, using long takes and razor sharp visuals to bring his worlds to life. Comparisons could be made with Robert Bresson and Michael Haneke but this would not do justice to his singularity. There are few people working in cinema today who can conjure up the ethereal atmosphere that Dumont can.

David Dewaele, a Dumont regular, plays ‘The Guy’, a mystical man who roams the wild coastline of Northern France. This is an otherworldly being that the local community reveres and looks to for support. When one of their children is ill, they seek his healing powers, and in turn he collects food from them daily. His only real relationship seems to be with ‘The Girl’, a gothic, troubled teenager played by Alexandra Lemâtre. Dumont hints at domestic unrest in her family; hints of abuse from her stepfather. She confides her problem to him, and he takes matter into his own hands. A clinical shot to the chest as her stepfather steps out of his barn.

This action sets off a chain of violent retribution, but it would be foolish to mistake this film for a typical lovers- on-a- killing- spree yarn. For one, their relationship is strangely sexless. ‘The Guy’ rebukes her longing advances, and his only dalliances with the fairer sex are purely spiritual. When a local girl is deathly ill, he revives her through sex. Yes, it sounds absurd on paper, but Dumont makes it work. The violence is also far from sensational, appearing at infrequent moments and devoid of any cinematic relish. Instead, the duo wander the wilds of the countryside, dwelling in sunlight and gentle breeze. ‘The Guy’ seems to be completely at one with his surroundings, indifferent to ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but what exists before him.

Hors Satan, like Dumont’s previous work, is not for the restless viewer. It is full of long close ups of the two characters gazing into the landscape, little dialogue, and with banal meaning. There are few ‘events’ for the audience to grapple onto, Dumont allowing the landscape to almost flow through the viewer. Dumont uses a mixture of wide angle shots and close ups, and there is no sound editor to prettify the sounds of the coastline. Every footstep, every whistle of the wind, can be heard vividly on screen. These are important choices, allowing the audience to be completely immersed in the environment, beguiled by its beauty and indifference.

One film it is sometimes reminiscent of is Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It too features a couple too dysfunctional to operate in civilised society and finding comfort in the unbounded freedom that nature offers. There is a distinct parallel in Dumont and Malick’s thought processes as well; both seek to draw the viewer’s attention to nature and its power over mankind, using the sensory capabilities of cinema to express this idea. Like Badlands, Dumont’s film leaves us with more questions than answers but is similarly exhilarating. Although Dumont is an atheist, there are constant hints of spirituality and a higher power in his work, and Hors Satan continues in this vein. But perhaps for Dumont, it is the cinema that is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful.

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1. BADLANDS (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK. USA, 1973)

There are filmmakers, and then there is Terrence Malick. On the surface this is a fairly conventional road movie following two young lovers on a crime spree. But Malick subverts the story of murderer Charles Starkweather for his own purposes; this is a dreamy, timeless film that hints at abstract emotions that transcend mere happiness or sadness. With his beautifully photographed Hopperesque landscapes and mute characters, Malick gives us something otherworldly and genuinely odd.

2. PARIS, TEXAS (DIR. WIM WENDERS, USA/GERMANY, 1984)

A letter of both love and hate to America, German auteur Wenders perfects the road movie with his tale of Travis, a loner who seeks to reunite his estranged family and rediscover the American Dream. A clever distortion of both the American road movie and the Westerns of John Ford, Paris, Texas really soars as a piece of melodrama. Harry Dean Stanton’s movingly hangdog central performance holds the film together, while the final monologue is both heart breaking and cathartic.

3. ANDREI RUBLEV (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA, 1966)

Alongside Kubrick, Russian director Tarkovsky is perhaps the only filmmaker to really push cinema to its limits on a large scale. This epic film follows the tribulations of painter Andrei Rublev through a period of religious strife and violence. While some of Tarkovsky’s other works veered too much towards introspective worthiness, this film utilises the director’s inventive technical vision to his greatest heights. The opening balloon sequence and the pagans on the river count as two of the most extraordinary set pieces committed to film. Existentialism and technical vision collide with aplomb.

4. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (DIR. PETER WEIR, AUSTRALIA, 1975)

Once voted the greatest Australian film of all time, this Peter Weir film is arguably one of the most curious and beguiling works in history. Based on the disappearance of several schoolgirls on a mountain in 1900, the film revels in it’s languid, strange atmosphere and sugar coated visuals. Bravely, Weir never seeks to solve the case- but in this case, it doesn’t matter. Weir challenges the audience to consider the idea that sometimes there are no easy answers, that not everything in this world can be categorised and put into boxes.

5. COME AND SEE (DIR. ELEM KLIMOV, SOVIET UNION, 1985)

Francois Truffaut once said that all war films end up glamourising war, despite their best intentions. Come and See is one of the few films which genuinely challenges this theory. Set in Nazi occupied Belarus during WW2, the film follows the young Flyora as he seeks to evade the army which has killed his family. While most war films tend to lend an air of nobility to the fighting (cough Saving Private Ryan cough), Come and See shows wartime as it really is; a nightmare-ish hell where confusion and inhumanity reign. The film is redeemed as a genuine piece of art by the frequent touches of poetry, both in the vivid imagery and striking sound design. The shot of Flyora lying shellshocked by a dead cow will stay with you forever.

6.  THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1973)

Once you’ve seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll start to wonder how every other filmmaker is so bloody….mundane. Jodorowsky’s films touch on religion, sex and death, but it is the striking visuals and mind boggling set design which mark his work as cult gems. The baffling plot revolves around the ‘thief’ and his quest for immortality, leading to a series of wild adventures. If Dorothy had taken a tab of acid on her route down the Yellow Brick Road, this film would probably have been the result.

7. TRUST (DIR. HAL HARTLEY, USA, 1990)

Hal Hartley came to prominence in the late 80’s in US independent cinema, embarking on an inexplicably good run of films, like Scorsese/Coppola in the 70’s. His De Niro is Martin Donovan, a chiselled jawed, verbose actor who stars alongside the late, elfin-like Adrienne Shelly. The film follows Shelly as the brattish teenager who discovers she’s pregnant and homeless, and her chance meeting with Donovan, an older man undergoing his own existential crisis. Hal Hartley is extremely influenced by Godard and Bresson, even taking scenes wholesale, yet he is much warmer than Godard and funnier than Bresson. His films have often been compared to choreographed dance, where the characters waltz around each other in torment and lust, and in Trust we have his most defining film.

8. MAUVAIS SANG (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE, 1986)

Leos Carax is regarded as some kind of renegade in French cinema, with his films usually set around outsiders from society. Mauvais Sang, his second film revolves Alex (Denis Lavant), a prodigious lock picker who gets involved in a heist with Marc (Michel Piccoli) and his young lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). Tensions between the three of them grow as Alex begins to fall for Anna, and the film is essentially a romantic thriller. Denis Lavant is one of the most unusual actors around, his reptilian features and penchant for acrobatics and impromptu dance routines making him irresistible. Binoche has never been more radiant as Anna. Edited in a poetic, elliptical style, Mauvais Sang is a cult gem, full of vitality and life.

9. L’ HUMANITE (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE, 1999)

Bruno Dumont is another French filmmaker influenced by Bresson’s stark humanism and obsession with faith. Yet, Dumont has his own style influenced by his time as an industrial corporate film maker; static images of desolate Northern France and vivid cinematography give the impression of thereness. Pharaon De Winter is the detective of a small rural town where a young girl has been found murdered. A childlike man, De Winter struggles to solve the case, and all the time the audience is questioning his role in the film.  L’ Humanite deals with sex and violence in a non-judgemental, matter of fact way, and the film veers between tenderness and brutality with ease. A sinister, disquieting film yet strangely invigorating in it’s realness.

10. GUMMO (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA, 1997)

One of a handful of films that could have potentially hinted at a new direction for cinema. There is nothing quite like enfant terrible Korine’s debut, save perhaps his idol Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small,which has a similarly scant plot and improvisational feel. Set in the fictional town of Xenia in small town America, the multi stranded film meanders through a series of vignettes of the distinctly dysfunctional inhabitants. Mixing pop culture as diverse as Roy Orbison and Sleep, naturalistic performances and moments of poetry, Gummo is a singular oddity that lingers in the mind long after the end credits. While some have labelled it exploitative, there is a sense of compassion and genuine affection running through the film from Korine.

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Bruno Dumont is a French director whose films are inspired by his fellow compatriot Robert Bresson and background in industrial documentary making. His singular films are stripped back and emotionally raw, using non–professional actors to convey a sense of authenticity. They deal in the primal urges of human beings and are constantly gazing up at some higher power in a semi religious fervour. At times they can be tender and compassionate, at times they can be blunt and brutal.

Hadewijch is his fifth feature, and though it was ready for release back in 2009, it is only just getting a minor release. It’s not that hard to see why Dumont has not found a mainstream audience yet; his films are slow burning and can be uncompromising in their depiction of sex and violence. This latest work takes a detour somewhat, though sticks to the overriding themes of his previous offerings. Celine (Julie Sokolowski) is a young woman living in a remote nunnery in northern France, but her religious dedication is so intense that she is cast out by the senior nuns. They feel that the wayward girl will perhaps find her way back to God if she is living back in the real world.

Back in her privileged Paris existence, she meets Yassine (Yassine Salime), a devout muslim boy from the projects. Her naivety and vulnerability allow her to be taken into Yassine’s world, where his brother (Nassir Karl Sarafidis), also deeply religious, is charmed by Celine’s religious devotion. This leads her onto a path of ‘activism’ that would be unthinkable at the beginning of the film. It’s testament to Dumont’s ability as a filmmaker that we follow this journey through to the end.

Dumont’s main actors often have a earnest, almost simple quality to them. Julie Sokolowski is utterly compelling as Celine, her pale features and shivering emotions dominating the screen. Dumont has a remarkable  ability to extract such raw, honest performances out of his non–actors, leaving us with moments of genuine spontaneity and tenderness. The vivid, sharp cinematography also contributes to this ‘thereness’ that Dumont conjures so masterfully.

Many viewers will be put off by the slowness, the sincerity, the ambiguity of Hadewijch, but those willing to surrender to the French director’s vision will find an enigmatic, surprising, oddly touching film about faith and redemption. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of his earlier Cannes winner L’Humanite, but there is no one quite like Bruno Dumont around at the moment.

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I’m in two minds about Last Winter, the debut feature from John Shank. On the one hand, you’ve got an accomplished, serious, occasionally visually striking drama about a young farmer coming to terms with the loss of his industry/world. On the other hand, it feels like a film that’s predictable from start to finish, from every single character to every plot movement. There is nothing new here.

We are introduced to Johann (a commanding Vincent Rottiers), who is toiling alone on the farm that he inherited from his dead father. The farm is based in small village in central France, a stark, blustery landscape, bringing to mind some of Bruno Dumont’s film terrains. He is evidently dedicated to his work and revels in the environment. Shank shows him milling in idyllic rivers and tending to sun-glazed animals. He is supported by a local girlfriend, who waits each night for him to climb into bed. All rosy so far.

The edenic existence is shattered, however, by the realisation that the farming co-op that Johann is part of, is suffering. As the head of the co-op, it’s Johann’s ultimate decision whether to give in to Helier (Michel Subor), the middle man between the co-op and the larger foreign companies who want to dictate the farmers work. Johann, ever stubborn, is reluctant to adapt to modern demands.

Coming from a rural background, these issues are not unfamiliar to me, and there are many news reports about farms capitulating under bankruptcy, and even suicides. This is clearly a serious issue and one that I have not seen represented on screen much, if at all. Yet, it might be this familiarity that with the subject that makes the film slightly staid for me.

Perhaps it is because the director Shank, American born, was not already ingrained in the culture that he is depicting; does his outsider status perhaps make the film feel a little inauthentic? Altogether the film feels somewhat by the numbers. His girlfriend is of little or no consequence, barely saying a few words, and then there is the inexplicable presence of his mentally disturbed sibling, a strange staple of independent dramas (What’s eating Gilbert Grape?, Lost Times), whose only role seems to be to inject unnecessary angst to the story and bludgeon home how compassionate the protagonist is.

There are elements of Malick in the idyllic shots of nature and landscape, but these are mostly drowned out by the gloomy middle section. There is a particular sequence which seems indebted to Days of Heaven‘s famous locust spectacle. Bruno Dumont appears to be another reference point, with his stark portrayals of rural French life. Last Winter unfortunately feels like a lite version of these auteurs films, neither beautiful or otherworldly enough for Malick, or gritty and compelling enough to be a Dumont.

By the end I was pleading for Shank to refrain from an ‘open ending’. Once a thoughtful, challenging part of many art films, it now seems to be a weapon for lazy filmmakers unsure of how to end their story. Often there might not be a ‘right’ ending, but I think Last Winter had the choice of two interesting paths. It chose the middle road.

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