Sunday 8 December 2019

The Life of Jesus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

Bruno Dumont's 1997 debut feature The Life of Jesus has recently been treated to a 4K digital makeover, with this restoration enjoying a release both in cinemas and on home video.  Sometimes too much is made of restored versions of films, and most of us have at some stage been burned by this marketing tool, with many a much-trumpeted release failing to produce a noticeable difference between prints old and new.  However, in The Life of Jesus' case there is a huge gap in quality between this release and those which preceded it; over the years, the film hasn't always looked in the best of shape, but this pristine new version really does look like it was shot yesterday.  There's an added poignancy to this re-release in that the film's star, the charismatic David Douche, died in a house fire four years ago today.  The Life of Jesus was Douche's sole acting credit, which is a not uncommon statistic among the non-professionals who populate much of Dumont's work.  On hearing of Douche's death, some who knew him were surprised to learn of his big-screen adventure; he apparently never spoke of his starring role in a film which had wowed audiences at Cannes.

If you've never seen the film, it's worth mentioning now that The Life of Jesus isn't actually about the life of Jesus.  It's an oblique title (which does become slightly clearer after multiple viewings), one shared with a book by Breton writer Ernest Renan.  In Renan's 1863 bestseller, Jesus was portrayed as a great leader, yet one who was categorically human - thus, acts such as his miracles were rejected outright; Renan didn't do this out of disrespect, but rather felt that his take on Jesus would improve Christ's standing as an important historical character, albeit one who should be subjected to the same biographical scrutiny as any other notable person from the past.  Naturally, this approach ruffled a few feathers, but Renan sincerely felt that, in humanising Christ and stripping away the supernatural aspects of the gospel, he was affording greater dignity to Jesus and his achievements.  While Dumont's film is not an adaptation of the book, the use of Renan's title does feel strangely apt: just as Christ's feats - as according to Renan - required no superhuman powers, acts of evil in the film aren't rooted in the diabolical.  In Dumont's films, the spectrum of good and evil is usually somewhat narrower than is generally accepted, yet there's often a yearning for spirituality, too; since The Life of Jesus, Dumont has explored these themes on more than one occasion, most prominently in Outside Satan.

Now you know what the film isn't about, here's the gist: Freddy (Douche) and his friends while away their days in a small provincial Flanders town, with their go-to activity being to race their mopeds through the streets and around the surrounding countryside.  None of these aimless young men appears to be gainfully employed; beyond motorbikes, the only shared pastime of note they have is playing in the local marching band.  That said, the epileptic Freddy owns a pet finch which he takes great care of, and he does have a girlfriend in Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), who works as a cashier in the local supermarket.  Marie and Freddy's relationship is tested by the latter's erratic behaviour, and once Kader (Kader Chaatouf) - a young man of North African heritage who's been subjected to the casual racism of Freddy et al. - enters the fray and begins to vie for Marie's affections, you just know that this isn't going to end well.  On account of his epilepsy, Freddy is no stranger to hospitals, but it's actually when he's attending one as a visitor that we get the film's sole explicit biblical reference: as the brother of one of Freddy's friends lies dying of AIDS, we see a picture on the wall of the raising of Lazarus.  But, in line with Ernest Renan's theories regarding Jesus' abilities, there will be no resurrection for this unfortunate patient.

Even after a dozen films - and we'll be reviewing his latest next month - The Life of Jesus still stands as Dumont's most accessible work, with only Hadewijch and Flanders mounting a serious challenge to that title.  While it occasionally flirts with the transgressiveness which would turn full-bore with Dumont's next two films - Humanity and Twentynine Palms The Life of Jesus plays as a direct and engrossing work, one which at no point feels like a first film; the fluency displayed in much later works such as Camille Claudel 1915 is fully evident here.  In his films, Dumont has seldom strayed from his own back yard, using the backdrop of the Flanders he knows to great effect.  It has often been said that he frequently uses the landscape as a character in its own right, and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Life of Jesus, in which we see Dumont's home town and its environs in different seasons.  But, regardless of whether it's a stifling summer or a snowy winter, Freddy's life never changes very much - until the final reel.  Late on in the film, we glimpse an ant running along Freddy's bare arm, while he in turn looks to the sky - seemingly newly aware that he, just like the insect, is part of something much bigger.

Darren Arnold

Images: 3B Productions