La vie de Jésus: The Sky Above

When Bruno Dumont’s debut feature, La vie de Jésus, was released in 1997, French newspapers buzzed with the appearance of a major new talent. Some referred to the thirty-nine-year-old former philosophy teacher and director of industrial films as an heir of Robert Bresson’s; others, as an exceptionally perceptive social realist shedding light on the rise of the extreme right. A young cinemaniac living in Paris at the time, I was confused by this reception. La vie de Jésus did not strike me as a sociological exposé of the provincial working class that was driving France’s ultraright-wing National Front to historic electoral success: while its portrayal of small-town boredom, unemployment, and the senseless mechanism of racist aggression was convincing, the film had an allegorical sweep, an impulse toward the truth of human nature over the reality  of statistics. As for the Bresson comparison, it seemed like the lazy reflex of critics who reach for the French master any time nonprofessional actors appear in a story of redemption, particularly if the director has a distinctive visual style. 

To my eye, Dumont’s world was different from Bresson’s. Dumont is a landscape artist, filming in wide shots and a 35 mm anamorphic format, while Bresson was an organizer of details, homing in on hands and faces to construct meaning. Dumont embraces his untrained actors’ tics and accents, while Bresson aimed to turn his performer-models into blank slates. And I couldn’t imagine the deadpan humor that Dumont finds in the rattle of a gawky youth’s body as he bangs on a snare drum turning up in a Bresson movie. None of which made it any clearer to me where this singular filmmaker fit into French cinema — or what Jesus had to do with it. 

The film focuses on Freddy, an unprepossessing, epileptic twenty­something with sunken dark eyes in which one might read anything or nothing at all. Freddy spends his days riding his motorbike around Bailleul, a small town in the north of France where excitement comes in the form of the occasional chaffinch-chirping contest, the sight of a souped-up car tearing through the central square, or, in Freddy’s case, unadorned sex with his girlfriend, Marie. When Kader, a young man of North African descent — or, as the locals put it, an “Arab” — takes an interest in Marie, Freddy is launched on a collision course as tragic as it is pointless. La vie de Jésus may not be a portrait of evil, but Freddy is certainly no saint. Was the title a cynical commentary on how far we have fallen? Or was I blind to the grace that inhabited the citizens of Bailleul? 

Dumont has stated that the film’s title comes from an 1863 biography of Christ by the French philosopher and religious historian Ernest Renan. Renan’s controversial best seller described Christ as a regular human being, responsible for no miracles other than those invented by his disciples in order to spread his teachings after his death. Far from dismissing Christ’s eminence as a religious leader, Renan sought only to bring him down to earth, suggesting he was all the greater for being a normal person capable of extraordinary deeds. By borrowing Renan’s title, Dumont appears to follow the opposite course, taking the unexceptional Freddy and lifting him above his humble circumstances. Yet Freddy is a murderer, not a martyr, and any redemption he might achieve is at best a personal realization, an awakening to his own guilt. Rather than a description of the film’s contents, the title is an unusually active element of the viewing experience, a riddle that prompts the viewer to see beyond the low horizons of Freddy’s existence and imagine how the spiritual might be reintroduced into this context. In the trickiest of ways, Dumont titles the film to prime us to look for good where there is evil. Yet he does not ask us to like Freddy, only to accept that he exists, like the gray sky and mournful fields of his native French Flanders, the low-lying area extending east along the Belgian border from the English Channel. 

For a movie called La vie de Jésus, the film features surprisingly few overt religious references. A striking exception comes early on when Freddy and his friends accompany their friend Michou to the hospital to see his brother Cloclo, who is dying of AIDS. In a series of close-ups, Dumont introduces these young men faced with the imminence of death, staring in pained silence at Cloclo. The succession of shots ends with a two-shot of Freddy and Quinquin, an extraordinarily narrow-faced specimen whose half-shaved bowl cut would not be out of place in a Brueghel painting, and whose name and peculiar appearance foreshadow Dumont’s triumphant turn to comedy more than fifteen years later in Li’l Quinquin (2014). Unlike his friends, Quinquin is looking not at Cloclo but at a tiny reproduction of Giotto’s The Raising of Lazarus that is pinned to the wall. Dumont isolates the image of the fourteenth-century fresco in a close-up, then returns to Quinquin, who asks Freddy if he knows about this guy who came back from the dead. Freddy tells him to shut up. In one sense, the reference to Lazarus is a false friend: there will be no miracles in this Vie de Jésus, and death will be permanent and senseless. Yet the religious reference serves to activate the title and push the viewer beyond the surface of the narrative. 

Similarly, three subsequent close-ups of Cloclo recall images of the recumbent Christ in Renaissance painting. With AIDS-related sar­comas for stigmata, mouth agape, and eyes staring blindly, Cloclo is as close as the film gets to a direct reference to Jesus Christ, the waxy pallor of his skin recalling Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (an allusion discussed by John Caruana in his 2014 essay “Bruno Dumont’s Cinema: Nihilism and the Disintegration of the Christian Imaginary”). Holbein’s sixteenth-century painting, which not coincidentally was much admired by the epileptic Fyodor Dostoyevsky, shows Christ’s body in its most human, vulnerable form, gaunt and on the verge of decay. Here again, Dumont rides the line between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the material. The paradox at the heart of his cinema is that of a filmmaker who is an avowed atheist but repeatedly chases the mystical. He would go on to simultaneously address the profound, sensual experience of a religious calling and the dangers of fundamentalism in a film inspired by the Christian mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp (Hadewijch, 2009), and to mix a faithful recitation of the words of the Roman Catholic poet Charles Péguy with dancing nuns and pratfalls in his supremely idiosyncratic tellings of the story of Joan of Arc (Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, 2017, and Jeanne, in postproduction at the time of this writing, in early 2019). 

“Dumont does not challenge us to embrace religious values, much less sacred rites, but to yearn for something greater than the ersatz reality on television, the cruelty born of boredom, and a stony resistance to beauty.”

Dumont does not challenge us to embrace religious values, much less sacred rites, but to yearn for something greater than the ersatz reality on television, the cruelty born of boredom, and a stony resistance to beauty. Yet La vie de Jésus is relentlessly attached to the material, delivering a physical experience rare for a film that eschews handheld camera work and in-your-face proximity to its subjects. There is the collision of bodies when Freddy and Marie have sex, more a struggle than an embrace, but also the way Dumont will send a jolt through the lethargy of provincial life by abruptly cutting to the motion of a roaring motorbike or a car dashing through the surf. Never is it clearer that Freddy is first and foremost a body bound to the earth than when he falls off his motorcycle or hurls himself into a field. His only escape from the here and now comes when he has an epileptic seizure. Freddy hates that loss of control, but Dumont suggests the element of transcendence in what was once known as the sacred disease by lifting the camera away from Freddy’s convulsing body and into the sky. 

Looking back with a knowledge of Dumont’s subsequent films, one is struck by the fact that La vie de Jésus is that rare debut that introduces a filmmaker practically fully formed, a mature artist who came to his first feature having developed a method and identified his themes. Though Dumont’s approach would become more radical with his second feature, L’humanité (1999), and shed the elements of naturalism one still sees in La vie de Jésus, this first feature introduces a director ready to stake a claim to the territory that would be his in the decades to follow. That territory is first a literal one: with the exception of forays to the Mojave Desert in Twentynine Palms (2003), to Paris and Beirut in Hadewijch, and to the south of France in Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), he has been remarkably faithful to Flanders. His films are as closely associated with this once-booming industrial region of attached brick houses, gently rolling farmland, and dunes running into steel-gray waters as John Ford’s movies are with Monument Valley. Yet it is unlikely that the local chamber of commerce was best pleased by Dumont’s representation of his hometown of Bailleul: while there is a raw, unfussy beauty to his views of the surrounding countryside, the town itself is seen as a desolate environment where long streets formed by unbroken rows of squat stone houses funnel into a narrow horizon. 

History weighs heavily in Bailleul: La vie de Jésus’s most festive gathering — as well as the occasion for its first racist outburst — is a commemoration of the Armistice of November 11, 1918, which ended World War I, a conflict that practically leveled Bailleul. Dumont does little to underline the violence that has been visited upon this region, but it is there, a part of the landscape quietly echoing the carnage in Rwanda glimpsed on television in the film’s first minutes. The roofless steeple where Marie and Kader embrace is in fact a monument to the war dead. While both young people note that it stinks of urine, it is here that Kader will be moved to look up to the sky in gratitude, disbelief, or unadulterated joy when Marie rests her head on his shoulder and asks for his forgiveness. In Dumont’s world, everything is contiguous: beauty and ugliness, love and death, the sacred and the profane. We don’t know what Kader feels as he raises his eyes to the sky and sees a cloud absorb the sun’s glorious light, but it is the first time one of the characters in La vie de Jésus lifts his gaze to anything other than the television set mounted high on the wall in the café run by Freddy’s mother. 

While Kader is looking up at a luminous cloud, Freddy is being eased into the dark shaft of an MRI scanner. He sees nothing. Freddy’s enlightenment will not come without tragedy, but he will experience an unknowing communion with Kader. After he is arrested for killing Kader and escapes from the police station, Freddy throws himself into a field and looks up at the sky. Dumont places the camera above Freddy, but not to look down in judgment. Instead, the high angle creates a physical impression of Freddy’s vulnerability. Shirtless and blinded by the sun, he is dwarfed by the tall grass. The sunlight seems to crush him, to push him back into the earth. Then the light changes, and Dumont cuts to an image of the sky much like the one Kader saw, with clouds pulsing in the light of the obscured sun. Through this most surprising of parallels, Freddy sees what Kader saw, though of course he will never know that. In fact, it is the only instance in the film when the viewer knows more than the character on-screen. Dumont trusts us to make sense of this challenging equivalence between the murderer and his victim. 

Some would interpret such a moment as one of religious revelation; others, as a realization of the awe-inspiring power of nature. As we have seen, Freddy is resistant to both religious sentiment and any sensitivity to natural beauty. He hushes Quinquin when he mentions the resurrection of Lazarus and is equally dismissive when his mother suggests that his late father is watching over him. When he and Marie take a chairlift that overlooks the rolling hills outside Bailleul — the closest anyone gets to elevation in this tale of the low countries — he is quick to deflect her admiration of the vista with a lame joke. And so the final moment of La vie de Jésus may be devoted simply to Freddy’s recognition of his smallness in the face of the fundamental vastness of the sky, of the vulnerability that shapes his humanity. Cutting from the shot of the clouds, Dumont shows us an ant, a creature so easily snuffed out, darting over Freddy’s arm. Freddy lets the ant disappear into the grass, and we hear him begin to cry.