An attempt is made to express a far-reaching moral conflict, which is incarnated in a woman’s face, merely by means of a series of actions, sketched out in a few strokes with a simplification that touches on abstraction. Ultimately, it is that face that gives internal coherence to an otherwise notably discontinuous film, in the same way as the image of Falconetti or Anna Karina fills the gaps in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc  or Vivre sa vie .
– José Luis Guarner, Roberto Rossellini (Studio Vista, 1970)
Bruno Dumont has always displayed an intriguing way of talking about the characters in his films, and the way they become incarnated on screen by actors.
In the era of Twentynine Palms (2003) – still my favourite in his career so far – Dumont spoke, somewhat disconcertingly, about how the central actors (Katerina Golubeva and David Wissak – while the career of the former is legendary, screen credits for the latter are scant) were miscast, and didn’t really fit the roles he had written. He freely admitted that he disliked them as people, and that (in his opinion) they couldn’t act very well, either (!). His film then became, at some level, not about ‘managing’ or ameliorating this discrepancy (as most directors would try to do) but simply filming it, using this gap between role and actor as the material and texture of his work. It’s a little like the way Philippe Grandrieux speaks of simply embracing the presence of the actors in a project such as Un lac (2008), no matter how close or distant they may be to the part as written – and no matter what ambient unrealism may result. For Grandrieux, it’s a matter of loving his materials, human and every other kind. In Dumont’s case, however, there was an unpleasant air of the infamous ‘actors are cattle’ attitude, and a smug, moral-philosophical superiority.
Many things have changed in Dumont’s career since that time, most obviously his relation to actors. Working with stars including Juliette Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) and Léa Seydoux in France has nudged him into a more respectful attitude. Even when – during the strange but undeniably vigorous turn to comedy inaugurated by P’tit Quinquin (2014) – he was shooting grotesque characters, he insisted on the professional skill of his unusual actors and his personal fondness for them: it’s as if he wanted to shake off the mantle of uppity-ness – just ‘using’ performers as bodies in a detached (or robotically Bressonian) way – that had dogged him previously.
Dumont’s discourse, however, will never win a prize for humanism. And why should it? His interest in cinema as a form with figures – a form that can be measured and calculated – is one shared (to varying degrees) by many filmmakers. Let’s turn to some of his arresting interview proclamations about France. First, note his insistence that everything that happens in the film is a photo-roman cliché – including the central event of a fatal car crash, which is stretched out (and, in a sense, parodied) in a truly crazy way. That this is a world of fakery, pretence and hypocrisy rendered in an appropriately artificial manner.
Then there’s the character of France de Meurs (Seydoux) herself. On one level, she stands for a typical media celebrity of our time: soulless, alienated, living in a world of pseudo-event screens (its promo poster plays up this aspect), quasi-mocking up the mise en scène of her on-the-spot reports (Broadcast News-style) in exotic trouble areas of the globe, glued to her own mirrored reception on social media. (I will admit to some passing sympathy with the journalist who tartly recorded his sense that the film is ‘a commentary on TV by somebody who seems never to have turned on a TV’.) Dumont begins the film with an unusual scene that stitches up footage of Emmanuel Macron in a press conference with France firing off her killer questions – all intercut with enthusiastic go-girl gestures from her producer at the back of the room, Lou (Blanche Gardin, unfortunately keyed to a Hollywood rom-com gal-buddy function on endless loop). So it’s transparently a satirical commentary on the nation, on politics, on the media, on ‘fake news’ and all that … right?
Dumont does not quite see it that way. In a fascinating interview with Flavia Dima for the Viennale, Dumont states categorically that the character of France “does not exist”, that “she does not have a sociological existence” – hence, “we should not talk about her in the way in which we talk about someone who truly exists.” So, what is she, then? She’s a device, “a vehicle to which the spectators can cling onto, which can help them traverse the film”, “a character that solely serves the spectators, in fact, and sort of traps them” – and, even more strikingly on the metaphor plane, “a sort of gymnastics apparatus, which serves us to cling onto it, to climb, to descend”.
The director’s role, then – and here Dumont is not all that far from Hitchcock or De Palma, at least in some of their public statements – is to take charge of this gymnastic dispositif of the fiction and “[make] it all sing, ascend and descend in accordance to all of the variations of human emotions”, a musical analogy to which Dumont often takes recourse. Playing the instrument of the film, playing the emotions of the spectator – via the intermediary of a powerful performer in an emotionally ‘naked’ role.
Let’s look into that role, as a type, a little more. Camille Claudel, Joan of Arc, France … Dumont admits to this kinship in a Legion of Suffering Women, even if he is resistant to discussing that in terms of gender, which he no doubt regards as a reductively ‘woke’ (one of his favourite words!) positioning. (Lars von Trier is a bit more upfront about the same intention in his Golden Heart Trilogy.) He also enters into Dima’s astute suggestion that France is, on this score, in dialogue with Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ‘51 (1952). This connection is worth unpacking.
I am a lover of several great Rossellini films, but Europa ’51 strikes me as bizarre on a number of levels – and I am not the only RR fan who thinks so. It sets about identifying the modern Christ – or, at the very least, a saint – in the figure of a contemporary, exiled oppressed woman, Irene (Ingrid Bergman). For this character, Rossellini was inspired, in equal parts, by Francis of Assisi (to whom he had already devoted a splendid, childlike film in 1950) and renegade philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943). Irene is moved through emblematic Stations of Europe in 1951: factory, family home, asylum, school, scientific laboratory …
The central aspect of Rossellini’s use of the Female Christ figure is that she must suffer endlessly, and lose all. One immediately sees Dumont’s attraction to this dramaturgical ‘device’: both Irene and France experience the devastating death of their children. And, in Rossellini and Dumont alike, it is hard not to detect an element of sadism in the storyteller’s investment. (The same could be followed up in relation to Robert Bresson’s tales of women: Joan, Mouchette, Marie in Au hasard, Balthazar … .) This figure, crucially, is judged by the film and its auteur, less for the morality of her behaviour than for an inherent (and/or cultivated) failing of her character, a failing that is virtually identical in both cases: the sin of excessive self-regard. Puffed-up self-esteem – and its Big Dipper corollary, grave depression or self-hatred – must give way to a more selfless, Universal Love of Mankind. (Luis Buñuel, for his part, put another kind of analytical, satirical spin on the grand illusions of both self- and other-love nurtured by Christianity.) More harshly than Rossellini, Dumont has his central figure “climb and descend”, gain ground and lose it (through soul-chilling betrayal, among other means), know herself and then forget herself, several times over – a punishing (in every sense) structure/itinerary.
The great Italian critic-scholar Adriano Aprà (now in his 80s) made a fascinating observation about Rossellini’s trajectory from film to television. For Rossellini (Aprà argued), Woman stands for intuition; she drives a journey that is both external (through the key sites of the world) and internal (emotional, spiritual); but she cannot forge the future – for that, we need Man! Rossellini thus abandoned cinema, which he regarded as an essentially feminine medium in its dominant tendencies, and switched to TV, where he could devote himself to the histories of a succession of Great Men: Christ, Marx, Socrates, Cosimo de’ Medici …
The musical scale upon which Dumont plays the character of France is characterised by two key elements. First, the repeated, systematic use of long-held close-ups on Seydoux that deliberately interfere with the rhythm hitherto established in a scene: France sad, France thinking, France blocked, France crying – contorting her face to an extreme degree in one instance. Dumont insists on this act of filming the face in the Dima interview:
The face is the main place where all emotions are blooming. When you regard a face, you can see what happens on the interior. And what interests me is what happens inside of her, but as I am unable to reach that place, I must advance and find ways of entering that space. So, I approached her face. And what I see, by using long [i.e., of long duration] shots, which serve as a way for me to enter what I have witnessed, is a story that pours out, and so I can introspect and probe into this woman who, for the moment, seems very very tough, and thus these are moments of calm. […] That is what compels me to film all the amplitudes of being, just like in music.
Filming the face ‘from the outside’, revealing the interior depths by recourse only to the physical, material exterior: it’s the veritable statement of an ontology of cinema. José Luis Guarner, in his book on Rossellini, gave this procedure another kind of gloss: the mythologisation and abstraction of A Woman’s Face serves to “fill the gaps” of certain films, lending “internal coherence” to “otherwise notably discontinuous” projects. France, too, fits this bill.
Dumont remarks that his scenario lacks the Christian transcendentalism – the appeal to the reclamation of an afterlife in Heaven – that characterises Rossellini. He might have also noted that it lacks Rossellini’s politics: there is no feminism along the lines of Irene’s confrontations with the male representatives of science, political parties and law; and no equivalent to the “I thought I was seeing convicts” factory-floor epiphany that Jacques Rancière (among others) has oft celebrated in Europa ’51. Politics is a delusory muddle, and experience is strictly an individual matter in Dumont; there is no collective dimension to his work, except derisively, an anonymous and indifferent seriality (packs of migrants, alien-clones, fanatical worshippers … ).
The other key element in Dumont’s cinema – almost everything he has made is structured upon it, save for the bleak nihilism of Twentynine Palms – is the sudden, fugitive appearance of grace. A fleeting moment of clarity, quiet, peace. Not a life-changing (or, at least, life-challenging) illumination, not a grand epiphany, like we sometimes see in 1950s Rossellini or Terrence Malick; but a moment of wise respite, or a flash of human connection. It won’t last long in Dumont (the films usually wrap up quickly on this grace-note), but it’s enough, it seems, to redeem a world that is often hellish, if not simply amoral, Beyond Good and Evil in his view (Hadewijch  is among the better examples of this philosophy-made-film).
Dumont is as welded to this grace-facing aspect of the Bressonian legacy as Paul Schrader is to the “love will find a strange path” aspect (see, for umpteenth confirmation of that, the underwhelming The Card Counter ). Despite the stylistic assurance and dexterity (the musicality) that’s undoubtedly there in Dumont’s cinema, despite the bold forays into vastly different genres, tonalities and storytelling modalities, the idée fixe of grace imposes a sameness and ultimate monotony on his work. It functions, frequently, as a dependably last-minute, metaphysically-slanted Get Out of Jail Free card. The genuine dramatic or comic surprise that accompanies successfully achieved moments of grace in film – whether for the married lovers of Voyage in Italy (1953) or for Willem Dafoe as a small-time entrepreneur in Go Go Tales (2007) – is nowadays sadly lacking in Dumont.
© Adrian Martin 1990 (Europa ‘51 notes) / January 2022