Bruno Dumont was born in 1958 in Bailleul, a small town in Flanders, France, between Lille and Dunkirk, where he spent several years teaching philosophy at the local high school. He also produced ads for local businesses; as a self-taught director, he used the time to learn filmmaking skills. His big-screen debut, the artistically mature The Life of Jesus (1997), came relatively late, at the age of 39. The film received the Jean Vigo Award and the Golden Camera at Cannes for best debut. Set in his hometown, it is the story of a young rebellious boy from a motorbike gang and his road to redemption through suffering. The movie draws partially on works by Robert Bresson, particularly Pickpocket (1959) and Mouchette (1966). However, Dumont’s later films are more closely associated with New French Extremism, a term coined by ‘Artforum’ critic James Quandt to define a group of films that share a transgressive nature, breaking taboos connected with sexuality and violence, made by French directors in the late 20th and early 21st century as a response to the crisis in French culture. Other directors associated by Quandt with the genre include Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, Claire Denis, Philippe Grandrieux, Marina de Van, François Ozon, Patrice Chéreau, Leos Carax and Bertrand Bonello.
Critics quickly hailed Dumont an exceptional director, one with a style that boldly opposes the tendencies in contemporary film and consistently reaffirms its own radical approach. Two of Dumont’s films, Humanity (1999, also shot in Bailleul) and Flanders (2006) received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival, a feat previously achieved only by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.
Humanity, Dumont’s second film, surprised, outraged and moved the Cannes jury. Despite (or in spite) of the film’s controversy, jurors split the Grand Prix between it and Rosetta, directed by the then-unknown Dardenne brothers. It seems to me the jury wanted to highlight a certain genre of cinema, a different one, considerate and morally involved, commented Dumont on the verdict (‘Kino’ 2000, no. 12, p. 55). With its raw naturalism, Humanity offers a surreal vision of a small French town struggling with the shocking rape and murder of a child, while an alienated police detective enshrouded in the aura of death, investigates the crime. In this and subsequent films, Dumont focuses on the aggression and beauty in human life, achieving an effect that some see as psychedelic and others find revolting. He has an exceptional talent for discovering and skilfully directing uncannily authentic actors – amateurs off the street who often require convincing before they cooperate, such as Emmanuel Schotté (detective Pharaon) and Séverine Caneele (as Domino, Pharaon’s neighbour) who received awards for best actor and best actress respectively, at the Cannes Festival.
In the experimental horror Twentynine Palms (2003), the director takes on the American landscape. Coldly received by critics, it is the story of an erotic relationship between a Russian woman and an American man travelling from Los Angeles to Twentynine Palms to see Joshua Tree National Park. The lovers’ empty sex and frustration mixes with the vacantly disquieting desert surroundings, leading to a final outburst of violence.
In Dumont’s next film, Flanders, two primitive young men compete for a woman’s favours in a vacuous though muddy setting that critics have compared to insects in a jar observed by the ‘entomologist’ director. This incisive (and nearly dialogue-free) examination of nearly unnoticeable traces of feelings is characteristic of Dumont.
In Hadewijch (2009), the director explores the spiritual dilemmas of a young Parisian expelled from a Catholic cloister, who joins an Islamic terrorist group. Here, Dumont returns to the aesthetics and themes of his debut and examines a religious issue with a strictly secular, unreligious perspective, garnering him the FIPRESCI award at the Toronto film festival. His latest film, Outside Satan, was shown this year at Cannes film festival.
1997 Życie Jezusa / La vie de Jésus / The Life of Jesus
1999 Ludzkość / L'humanité / Humanity
2003 Twentynine Palms
2006 Flandria / Flandres
2011 Poza szatanem / Hors Satan / Outside Satan