Monday, July 12, 2021


One positive thing to come out of last year’s quarantine was being stuck inside and having time to reassess certain specific movies. I’m a Bruno Dumont guy (now more than ever after reading more about him), but the period between 2002-2009 (Twentynine Palms through Hadewijch) is a period in his filmography I hadn’t revisited due to the fact that I wasn’t a fan of that particular run. But sometimes tastes & opinions change (especially after gaining a better of understanding of the filmmaker’s background).
Twentynine Palms is a fascinating movie because it was made by someone (Dumont) that was sick & tired of being compared to someone else (Bresson). Dumont’s previous two films were compared to the work of Robert Bresson so much that he was once dubbed: “the son of Bresson” and “the rightful heir to Bresson”. Some filmmakers like that of Tarantino or Jarmusch don’t mind the association with filmmakers that came before them. Dumont represents that brand of filmmaker who, while so obviously influenced by those who came before them, still wants to stand on their own two feet.

It got to a point where Dumont intentionally made cynical & dismissive comments about being compared to Bresson in interviews…

H2N: In watching Hadewijch, I was immediately brought to Robert Bresson—

Bruno Dumont: Who? Luc Besson? [laughs]

All this business of homage & influence reminds me of a quote from Hal Hartley (another filmmaker often associated with Bresson and was once dubbed the “Jean Luc Godard of Long Island"). 
After years of being mentioned in the same sentence as Jim Jarmusch he once said:

Being mentioned in the same breath as Jim Jarmusch was kind of swell. I always thought god he must be so embarrassed to have to now tug not only the weight of his own reputation of work but of other people - Hal Hartley

This quote applies to Dumont in more ways than one. Not only was his work constantly associated with Robert Bresson (and still is), but he was also made in to a supporting player in the New French Extremity movement which was a film scene crafted by critics that grouped together a lot of filmmakers who had nothing to do with each other and were now suddenly put in to a clique.

With all that being said, Dumont’s third feature (and first kind of English speaking film) ended up being a direct homage to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point with a climax right out of Deliverance. The film centers around an intentionally insufferable couple ("Katia" & "David") who’s relationship is put to the ultimate test on a semi-aimless road trip through the west coast. An interesting plot-point to the story is that the native Russian Katia doesn’t speak English while the American David doesn’t speak Russian. So as a compromise they both speak somewhat broken French to one another which only adds to the tension & miscommunication in their relationship. I don't know if this was done on purpose but it seems like Dumont was addressing the idea of miscommunication in relationships.

Outside of the basic plot and desert setting, Dumont crafts scenes to look exactly like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point /
Twentynine Palms

And he’s quite open with his connection to the work of Antonioni (more than Bresson)…

Cinema is an art that comes with big history. I have learned and been influenced by Fellini, Antonioni and a lot of Italian masters. When you are young you want to copy and imitate - Bruno Dumont

He also acknowledges the Deliverance influence (it's too obvious not to)…

The moment of the film that received the most notice is the DELIVERANCE scene where the couple is set upon by a group of rednecks - Bruno Dumont

Deliverance / Twentynine Palms

So it’s not like he’s above admitting influence. Maybe he was just sick of being compared to Bresson exclusively…

my approach to filmmaking is the exact opposite of Bresson’s way of working. For example, the way I work with actors is completely different; I use location sound where Bresson looped everything. It’s quite strange to me to see critics and spectators constantly taking out their Bressonian toolkits to decode my films. It’s something I can’t control; I can’t stop people from doing that. I only discovered Bresson late in my life and I really don’t care about him that much - Bruno Dumont

Twentynine Palms sticks out the most within Dumont’s filmography (it’s the most “explosive” and violent) but that’s probably because he was still figuring himself out while dealing with the burden of being the (so-called) “heir” to Bresson (something he clearly didn’t want). 
I’m not sure where it “ranks” among his other work (the acting is still just as awkward/bad as I remembered it) but it’s an interesting film to come back to and revisit once you gain a better understanding of his style and where he was mentally at that point in his career.

Monday, July 5, 2021


Flanders was the second Bruno Dumont film I ever saw. L’Humanite was the first. To this day I still consider L’Humanite to be a modern masterpiece. The perfect balance of soulful boring banality and semi-forced dark quirky weirdness. The problem with that was I expected/wanted every Dumont film going forward to be some variation of that, so I found myself disappointed with Dumont’s post-L’Humanite output between 2002-2009. I was in my 20’s during that period and I didn’t have a full understanding of Dumont’s lane of cinema (Dreyer, Bresson, Akerman, etc). That’s why I did this ‘02-‘09 Bruno Dumont reassessment. Now that I’m a little older I have a better understanding of Flanders and what I think Dumont was trying to do. I still don’t love it, but I appreciate it…

Flanders is Dumont’s version of a Greek tragedy. The basic story plays out like one. A young naive man (“Demester”) goes off to fight in the French military after the love of his life (“Barbe”) cheats on him with another man (“Blondel”). While in the military he experiences the horrors of war and returns to his small French town a tougher more grizzled version of his old self. On the surface it sounds like a pretty classic tale. The war portion of the film is pulled of with excellence. This was Dumont branching off more than ever by crafting full-on war sequences with explosions and fire fights.
The portion of the movie that still doesn’t fully connect with me are the portions of the film that take place in the small town of Flanders. Bruno Dumont does his Bruno Dumont “thing” a bit too much in this one. I appreciate his sense of randomness but it’s turned up quite here. There’s a lot of random moments for the sake of pointless randomness to the point where it kind of takes me out of the story a bit.

This was also the first film where I “got” what he was trying to do casting-wise. Prior to his collaborations with the likes of Juliette Binoche & Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, he was known for working with non-professional actors. But not just any group of non-professional actors… 
There’s no other way to say this but Bruno Dumont went out of his way to cast the most homely, weird-looking locals (I say this knowing I’m no supermodel myself). I guess the better way to say this is he cast people who would be considered traditionally unattractive. I think part of the reason I dislike certain elements of this film (I’ve come to enjoy other potions of it that I once did not) is that it forces me to confront this aspect of his work. As much as I love Dumont overall, I always wonder if he’s being a bit exploitive with his (non-professional) actors sometimes.

Outside of visual similarities and the deadpan delivery of their actors, Bruno Dumont was regularly compared to Robert Bresson because Bresson was also known for using non-professional actors (following his first two films). often times when modern directors cast non-professional actors they go the route of picking “traditionally attractive” people like models and/or random social media influencers (Ana Lily Amirpour) or naturally pretty-looking young people like Gus Van Sant or Larry Clarke. Even Bresson sometimes casted “traditionally” attractive people at times. It’s like Bruno Dumont intentionally went the opposite route of his contemporaries and casted the most unpolished folks he could find.

The actors from Flanders are from the town of Flanders which happens to be where Bruno Dumont is from so there is a personal element to his casting choices...

Flanders is my birthplace. It is visceral, sensitive irrational. I need the land in order to film human beings. In being filmed, Flanders gives back an aspect of human existence. I need a story because stories are the natural movement of our lives, that which connects us to one another - Bruno Dumont

His casting inspirations also came from his appreciation for art. In Dumont’s own words:

the actors were inspired by the tradition of Flemish paintings native to Belgium and northern France - Bruno Dumont

So while there is some obvious provocation in using the actors, there is some respect there. I guess it isn’t totally exploitive.

Odd casting choices aside, Flanders, like Twentynine Palms before it, was another pushback against the constant Bresson comparisons. Outside of the explosive war scenes (which is almost an anti-Bresson thing), Dumont makes nods to everyone from Jean Epstein (his true inspiration) & Carl Theodor Dreyer…

Ordet / Flanders

Le Tempestaire / Flanders

to Tarkovsky…

Andrei Rublev / Flanders

At the end of the day Flanders is the kind of film you check out last in Dumont’s filmography after you’ve got a grasp on his style. In my opinion this is his weakest film but it still deserves to be watched once if you’re a fan of his work or work adjacent to his. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021


Bruno Dumont spent the majority of the aughts avoiding the burden of being compared to Robert Bresson only to finish out the decade with an undeniably Bresson-esque film in the form of Hadewijch. Outside of themes concerning religion and the questioning of faith, Hadewijch ends with the main character trying to drown herself, which, when you take in to account his (sometimes forced) relationship with Bresson, makes one think of the final scene in Mouchette.

Dumont begrudgingly acknowledges why and where the Mouchette connection would come about, but he also adds on to that…

People tell me there is a reference to Mouchette in the fact that Céline tries to drown herself in the pond at the end - Bruno Dumont

Mouchette / Hadewijch

but I was just reading yesterday that the Beguines, the religious movement to which the real Hadewijch belonged—the nuns were drowned, so there is a reference to that as well and it’s going back much further. So, I think it is unfortunate that the imagination of so many spectators and critics begins with Bresson. It’s important to go beyond that, far beyond that, but I can’t help that in any way - Bruno Dumont

Mouchette / Hadewijch

Mouchette /

While Hadewijch is filled with scenes of deadpan faced nuns roaming through churches that might remind someone of Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest or his somewhat forgotten debut Angels Of Sin - this is still very much a Bruno Dumont film. The story follows a young would-be nun (Celine) who is expelled from her church because her extreme faith is deemed too dangerous even for the church (she starves herself, stands in the cold rain for long periods of time, etc, all in the name of Jesus Christ). It’s pretty clear that Celine loves Jesus and not just in a religious way. She has a dangerous borderline erotic fascination. And because she’s never known true romance (or even had a normal crush), her love is expressed in an unhealthy manner. 
I think without even meaning to do so Dumont addresses the root of where so much sexual repression comes from among nuns & priests in the church. They’re sometimes stunted emotionally when it comes to that part of life so they express themselves in ways only a repressed person would (violence, abuse, etc).
These are all things outside of Bresson's wheelhouse for the most part...

Dumont’s work has, of course, evolved over the years, while still retaining his signature materialism, a focus on how his characters are both burdened by and manipulate the physical stuff of the world around them. This has led to endless Bresson comparisons, and while Dumont is without a doubt a student of Le Maître Robert, the very opening of L’humanité (1999) demonstrates Dumont’s specific cinematic rendering of gravity’s force. Det. Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), running away from a crime scene, stumbles and lies with his face in the mud; the man is brought to earth with a thump, and then he simply settles, as if absorbed by the earth’s force of stasis. This is miles away from the lithe, balletic movement of objects or gestures in Bresson - CinemaScope

The biggest non-Bresson element in Hadewijch is Celine falling in with a group of extreme Muslims after being expelled from her church. This part of the story comes out of nowhere at first, but when you go back to Celine’s love of Jesus and her being kicked out of the church for being “too extreme”, it’s almost like a break up story. The “crazy ex” Celine has been dumped so she acts out in a fit of rage & jealousy by linking up/flirting with Allah.
This may seem silly to a rational-thinking person but Celine is a dangerous mixture of extreme & naive. She’s a scorned teenager who’s essentially been broken up with so she’s running to the arms of who she feels is the “enemy” of her ex in order to get attention.

Dumont’s underlying fascination with Muslim culture since day one has always intrigued me. From the Kader character in The Life Of Jesus to the characters in Flanders going off to war in the Middle East, there’s always been an outsider's fascination. I’m not saying I’d like Dumont to make a film that fully focuses on Muslim characters & Muslim culture (that could end up being a disaster), but there’s still something there that he clearly wants to explore more but doesn't fully know how..

I revisited Hadewijch last year and gained a new appreciation & understanding for it. To me, this marks where Dumont finally found his stride/“style”. That’s not to say earlier works like The Life Of Jesus and L’Humanite don’t take place in the same universe as Hadewijch (and there are some common Dumont-isms in Twentynine Palms & Flanders as well), but every Dumont film that came after Hadewijch had heavy strands of the same DNA in them where his previous couple of films did not.


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