You’d be forgiven a moment of surprise during the opening strains of La vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus). The title card that announces the film suggests immediately a preference for simplicity but the spluttering, raspy sound that underlies it is only clarified as the next cut finds the protagonist barreling down a country road on his moped. The Bible makes more references to donkeys than motorcycles. Dumont’s film, his debut, quickly asserts its departure from a seemingly clear-cut title. Far from the scorched earth of The Holy Land we instead find ourselves in French Flanders on a cold November day.
Unfolding with a quiet natural tone, we are introduced to Freddy (David Douche), a young man suffering from epilepsy who wiles away his days in Bailleul, a small village located between Dunkirk and Lille. There he divides his time between his mother (Geneviève Cottreel), his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), and his small troupe of friends, all unemployed and bored like him. Shiftless, with no career prospects or suitable amenities, Freddy and co. have few social outlets. Marie is the only girl in the group and her relationship with Freddy, marked by exuberant bouts of youthful sex, is the only such coupling on display. The rest of Freddy’s friends: Gégé, Michou, Robert and Quinquin, remain single and bound only to each other. Separately we meet Kader, of Arab descent and about the same age as Freddy. When he expresses an interest in Marie it allows the tensions within Freddy to boil over.
It would be fair to state that two major influences inform the film. The use of non-professional actors, casting faces rather than trained actors, is reminiscent both of the Italian Neo-realists and French formalist Robert Bresson. In the end it’s the latter’s legacy that weighs more heavily on proceedings. Dumont’s great debt to his forebear is not something that overshadows the film but rather shows the power of Bresson’s theory. While La vie de Jésus may not be quite as abstract or as rigidly composed as Bresson’s work, the thematic overlaps are significant, finding the old master’s subdued style and focus on minutiae advantageous in mapping out the larger, more central spiritual concerns. La vie de Jésus serves almost as a halfway marker between the two, maintaining much of the naturalism of the Neo-Realists but observing a larger, more clinical frame of philosophical investigation that undeniably bears Bresson’s stamp.
Through assorted, seemingly unrelated details, a carefully weighed depiction of this little hamlet and its occupants emerges. The lives of the boys take centre-stage. Their lives seem mostly carefree but it comes at the expense of having no opportunities. Travelling as a pack on their mopeds, they plan day-trips and restore a beat-up old Renault. They talk tough but have very little to really rail against. Such is the lot of small-town boys: using their limited resources to act out as best they can the rebellious roles they learn from television. The focus on modes of transport – the boys and their mopeds, the restoration of the car, and the repeated reckless driving of an unseen driver in what looks like an old, Group-B rally car – suggests an ever growing wish for the younger generation to find escape or at least some kind of freedom from their current existence. Freddy may be better off than the others as he has at least forged a relationship with Marie but we’ll soon learn that he’s not emotionally equipped to protect that either. Tellingly, Marie does have a job, working as a cashier at the local supermarket. It may lack glamour but it remains a more noble pursuit than the boys’ listless drift.
Despite the boys’ self-consciously maintained hard-edge, they recognise the need for some emotional outlets. This is particularly true in light of Clouclou, Michou’s brother, and his condition. He lies in hospital in the final stages of a battle with AIDS. The scene permits the only direct reference to Biblical events – a small image on the wall depicts the resurrection of Lazarus. As the film switches season we learn that some time in the interim he relinquished his life to the disease. It’s a huge blow to the boys and they find the event difficult to process. Amidst their dull lives, death somehow snuck in and took one of their own. The conversations that emerge on this topic, regarding grief and remembrance, are terse and unfocused. Only Michou, linked by family, is allowed to shed tears. They hint at an underlying emotional reservoir that, for reasons both social and personal, cannot be properly tapped and expressed.
Though he has outlets both personal and public, sex with Marie and raising a finch so it might sing, Freddy doesn’t really know how to escape his shuttered existence. A large part of the problem is that he can’t really isolate what it is that’s missing. His mother is supportive but she can’t help but coddle him. After all, they live in a small town and his epilepsy is a serious impediment. The only social amenity that is shared by the community is a marching band. Freddy and his friends make up the bulk of its percussion section. It might seem surprising, then, that it’s an event related directly to this that sets in motion Freddy’s downfall. Gathering for a drink after a successful Armistice Day march, the boys can’t resist directing racial epithets towards Kader and his parents. The move is met with widespread approval by the gathered citizenry. We shall focus on the birth of only one full human for now, that of Freddy. Dumont’s film carries the suggestion that many more will be deprived of that same epiphany.
To impart all this detail, Dumont utilises a fluid and simple visual language. The film resides almost entirely outdoors with a strong emphasis placed on nature and landscapes. Beginning in the winter, the first half of the film is full of sparsely populated fields, tilled and lying dormant until the spring. This world, pregnant with potential, will blossom as the second half ushers in spring. Those barren landscapes, steeped in browns, give way to green and new life. As the world flourishes Freddy too will gain new understanding, albeit at an immense cost.
Holding his camera back, Dumont usually surveys his subjects within the context of their environment. Although each are individuals, their surroundings weigh upon their nature. Close-ups are reserved for quiet, key moments within seemingly banal larger events. The eyes and countenances of his subjects belie a world of depth and emotion even as their daily routines would seem to deflect such interrogations. As the camera moves in, it doesn’t intrude on the larger scene but strips away the daily distractions that these characters indulge in to free themselves from their own niggling thoughts. The effect is remarkable, weighted perfectly to both sustain the natural flow of events while assuring us of deeper undercurrents. Likewise the film’s few scenes of nudity fully explicate the physical act of sex – reaffirming an ordinariness, a rough and unashamed humanity.
While the title alludes to the religious, Dumont is primarily concerned with flesh. Lazarus’ resurrection was a miracle of flesh and subsequently Freddy’s development is informed by the same substance. Throughout the film he takes frequent tumbles from his moped, either through carelessness or scorn of care, and his skin is subsequently damaged and marked. These fresh wounds offer him avenues of inquiry into his own being. Meanwhile his epilepsy, a disconnect between mind and body, limits and undoes him. With medicine unable to fully treat him, he can find no other avenue for release besides impotent acts of rage, kicking a wall or piloting his motorcycle off a steep embankment. The same dull rage that informs those actions will translate to every blow he later rains down upon Kader. As his relationship with Marie dissolves, Freddy’s own limitations are plainly set before him. He can only lash out and destroy Kader, his enemy. It is a final act as a raw, animal being.
All this culminates in the film’s remarkable finale, a scene so simple in its design yet so astonishing in its reach and illustrative quality that it surely earns a spot among an elite few in cinema1. Lying amidst grass and soil, facing the sky as a scuffed body of flesh and blood, Freddy recognises not only himself but also his place in something larger. How remarkable a thing to realise your own masquerade has rendered you an imposter even to yourself. The ramifications of this identification, a hard-earned truth found through so much earlier toil, is immense and seems only accessible through the simple means Dumont employs. As Godard so astutely described Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, we are again to witness, “The world in an hour and a half.”2
Through similar schema Dumont has emulated the master French formalist and replicated, in kind, the apotheosis of his art. These instances represent the highest of artistic ideals, the particular embodying fully the universal – indeed the universe itself. Whether these revelations require God or not is entirely open to interpretation but they find their summation in those final lines of Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest), “What does it matter? All is grace.3“ All is indeed grace, no matter where founded: the stupidity and the wisdom, the toil and the freedom, the sex and the hate. All are reflections and shadows that give us the tools to gain furtive glimpses, through the prism of the universe, of our own insignificance.
Referring back to the title, to the Messiah who never appears, it is not the references to Jesus that sanctify the young protagonist but rather Freddy’s own rough humanity and growing self-awareness that sanctify Jesus. Holiness is in humanity and not the converse. Freddy, lying in that field amidst nature and machine, man’s influence, perceives not simply his environs but himself within them. A pitiable beast but one now suddenly alive, perhaps for the first time. It’s almost senseless to punish him now for his past transgressions. He is only now aware that other paths are available to him. That realisation may prove punishment enough for the enlightened. It was never about escaping Bailleul but rather the mammoth task of escaping one’s own imposed self-perceptions.
It’s difficult to formulate in words such a profoundly cinematic realisation of affairs. Through carefully structured images and actions, captured, allied and interwoven, we find a message of immense breadth. In this isolated spot, between sky and earth, between man and nature, geopolitically between France and Belgium, a new human has emerged. His pain is the pain of Jesus on his cross: the knowledge of how much suffering must be inflicted, and subsequently endured, seemingly for inconsequential victories.
1 The finale of Chaplin’s City Lights springs to mind, as do numerous instances throughout the career of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu.
2 Although hardly contingent to their respective successes, both Bresson and Dumont’s films conveniently hover on or about the 90 minute mark.
3 Bresson’s spirituality is still a major talking point among his fans with many claiming he maintained faith until the end whilst others see it weaken and die within subsequent pictures. Speaking personally, I can’t see the tiniest glimpse of the religious in his final film, the absolutely crushing L’Argent.