If you had told anyone in 2013—after his heartbreaking seventh feature, Camille Claudel 1915—that famously austere French filmmaker Bruno Dumont would four years later be in the midst of a comedy renaissance, you’d rightfully have been laughed out of the room.
But here we are with the release today of the slapstick comedy farce Slack Bay (Ma Loute in French), starring Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini, and Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a musical comedy, set to premiere at Cannes next month.
Dumont’s reputation for serious meditations on man’s capacity for cruelty precedes him, to the point that critics are scared to tell him they found his work funny, and others describe him as a “grump.” In fact, prior to filmmaking, Dumont was a philosophy professor who later cut his teeth not at any film school, but by making commercial industrial documentary videos. (Using formal techniques to make machines seem interesting was the best “film school” experience he could have had, he says now.) In 2014, utilizing the television miniseries format, Dumont unexpectedly pivoted in a new direction toward more overtly comedic sensibilities with feature Li’l Quinquin, and critics took notice.
Slack Bay continues this descent into the screwball. The undeniable narrative similarities between those two recent projects—both murder mysteries set in northern France, investigated by two bumbling detectives—indicate Slack Bay as a sort of further refinement of this newfound sensibility.
Remarkably, throughout eight previous films, Dumont employed only two professional actors: Juliette Binoche (in Camille Claudel 1915) and Yekaterina Golubeva (in Twentynine Palms). Yet Slack Bay has the director utilizing actors to an unprecedented degree. Here he examines two societal groups in opposition to each other. An outwardly ridiculous, grotesquely bourgeoisie family, the Van Petegams, whose physical deformities and melodramatic speech could easily be perceived as an outward dig at acting as a craft, are played by thespians including Binoche (as Aude Van Peteghem), Luchini (as the hunchbacked André Van Peteghem) and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (as André’s wife Isabelle). The family lives up on a hill overlooking the titular bay in a concrete estate built “in the Ptolemaic style.” These performances are placed in juxtaposition with those of another family down in the village below—the cannabalistic Bruforts, portrayed by amateur actors (including a real-life father-and-son duo, Thierry and Brandon Lavieville) .
Throughout his career, Dumont’s camera has always lent a supremely empathetic eye toward all of his characters—from the racist epileptic Freddy in his first feature (The Life of Jesus), to the hauntingly blank Emmanuel Schotté in Humanité, who embodies an empathy for mankind so deep it almost debilitates him. In Slack Bay, the paradox lies in the imperfect human faces of the amateur actors, which stand out in contrast with the often bland beauty of movie stars—yet these are the faces of our neighbors and common people we see every day.
Fans of Dumont’s oeuvre will understand his new direction as an extension of the themes and ideas he has always examined. Underneath the surface of this free-wheeling throwback to the early days of cinema is a story that feels purely Dumontian.
Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you talk about your much-discussed shift to comedy?
Bruno Dumont (BD): I think what is left is poetry. It’s part of the evolution of a movie. With the succession of my movies, the theme of each movie is about the same. It’s very philosophical and mystical. They use different voices, and right now, today, [that voice] is comic. I just finished a comedy musical [Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc], but it’s always telling the same story: the mystery of life, of love, of lies, the human condition, basically. I tell stories to put human beings together and then see what happens.
MM: When you’re on set with both amateur and professional actors, are you interacting with them differently?
BD: It’s like painting. You choose your colors depending on the subject. The problem when you have professional actors is that you lose some of your human roots. On the contrary, a person who is not professional still has his roots. The difference between a professional actor and a nonprofessional is that the nonprofessional’s capacity to express certain things and to compose a character is a little bit smaller. Professional actors have more tools to compose a character, but they lose their roots. I always choose them in function of the characters they are going to play.
The professional actors are the bourgeoisie. I found with Juliette Binoche, who plays one of these bourgeois characters, that she already had 50 percent of the character [in her], and the same with the nonprofessionals: the fisherman, the poor people. Juliette Binoche is capable of being completely hysterical and crazy in her own character. A nonprofessional would not be able to do that. She can push the boundaries.
MM: I read that in order for your nonprofessional actors to “perform,” you give them a role that’s slightly different from what they actually do.
BD: It’s very paradoxical. Normally, to create farmers, I’m going to cast farmers. But I need something different. If you hire a farmer to play a farmer, it doesn’t work. But a fisherman could play a farmer [or the other way around]. At the same time I need something that’s similar and something that’s totally dissimilar. It’s not a documentary I’m doing. I’m doing fiction. I need both. It’s complicated [laughs]. The guy who plays the cop Machin in Slack Bay [Didier Després] is not a cop, and it’s because he is not a cop in real life that he’s a funny cop, because he plays the role of a cop. That’s the effect I’m looking for.
MM: Were you ever concerned about pushing the performances and the comedy too far? Did you ever dial it back, or were you always pushing for more?
BD: When I’m shooting I need all of the colors. I have a [dial], and I turn it, more or less, while I’m shooting. So while I’m doing the editing, I have all the possibilities in play: the normal [level], the lower, and then completely over the top. I can’t make that decision while I’m shooting, so the decision is made when I edit the movie. I ask the actors to give me different nuances so I can use that to make a final decision. I can take an actor who plays very strong all the way up to, say, a nine, and then when I’m editing I lower it to a two, for example. I need to have both so I can regulate that. It’s something I always do.
When we rehearse, we’re shooting. An actor needs to warm himself up during the shoot for a take, and so he naturally creates those nuances while he’s working up to a take.
MM: Has shooting on digital more recently with your last two projects helped your process of collecting this range of performances? Do you see yourself returning to film in the future?
BD: I love digital. It is better controlled. If you have a great DP, he can make some amazing images. It’s not what you shoot with, it’s the way that you shoot it. Digital gives back control to the DP. Normally it’s difficult to get a beautiful shot digitally; you have to work at it. The image that you see in Slack Bay is very worked. They regulated the camera in a certain way to get a certain kind of image, but it takes a lot of time.
MM: Your films are a perfect marriage of form and content. They’re beautiful aesthetically but underneath the image are these rigorous philosophical questions. Which of these two aspects, form or content, do you prioritize?
BD: Form, and cinematography, are more important. First you need a subject, but the subject is secondary to the way that you’re going to shoot the movie and how you use the cinematography to shoot the movie. The subject is less important than the form. When you look at painting from the 18th century, you find that the subject is more important. For example, with Jacques-Louis David you see the cross [in his 1782 painting Christ on the Cross]. The subject was more important. In the 19th century, anecdote replaced the subject. For example, Claude Monet would paint a windmill or something.
I paint windmills. I really believe that the subject has to be small, an accessory, so that you can develop the big image. The bigger a subject, the less I can work. I’m closer in a painting parlance to Monet than to David. When you want to know what love is about, you have to tell a small love story. The smaller the story, the more it becomes an anecdote, the more powerful it becomes.
MM: Is this where your geographic region comes into play? You’re using amateur actors in a specific region of France, instead of tackling some grand narrative.
BD: That’s why I put my movies in the north of France, with actors from the north of France. For me what is really dangerous is when it becomes grandiose and too big. My first film, The Life of Jesus, is a huge grandiose subject, and I told the story of a little man. In little Freddy, you have Jesus. I can’t shoot Jesus; I can shoot Freddy.
MM: Doesn’t your newest film, about Joan of Arc, flip this idea?
BD: Voilà. Yes, but Joan of Arc is a myth when she’s an adult, but the way that I shot it, it’s very small. It’s two little girls, Jeanne and Jeanette, because they’re smaller at different ages, and they’re amateurs—it depends on the subject really.
MM: You’ve been known to place certain rules or restrictions on the moviemaking process for each project. With Slack Bay, what restrictions did you impose?
BD: It’s through the costumes that we created these restrictions. We couldn’t find the characters unless the actors wore the costumes. We put Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in a very strong corset, because she had to conform herself and become really straight, while Juliette Binoche was allowed to be completely crazy and obnoxious. Valeria asked that they tie the corset even tighter so that she could perform in the way that I wanted her to perform, to restrain her; she has that very restrained character. We put the most horrible colors in the costume for Juliette Binoche. With Fabrice Luchini we added a hunchback. To contort an actor you can’t just tell them, you have to do it—so Luchini was obliged to contort his body. With the brother, Christian Van Peteghem [Jean-Luc Vincent], we gave him tiny little shoes so that he had to walk a certain way.
MM: The androgyne character Billie (played by the French actress Raph) in Slack Bay tweaks the clichéd trope of the rich girl falling for the poor fisherman, by making the girl’s gender fluid and a mystery for the viewer and the characters.
BD: I always look for something that is different and abnormal in what is real, because reality doesn’t really interest me. I always try to alter it in one way to find the other side. I’m not interested in a normal story. For example, “man meets a woman”—I’m going to find something to break the convention. Raph’s presence, and the way that she is, gives another dimension, because it’s unexpected. People go to the movies to be surprised. It’s not the conventional thing that you know is boring. It has to be an extraordinary experience.