20 juin 2006

Bruno Dumont on filmmaking

Discussion with Bruno Dumont

by Marie Vermillard, Philippe Grandrieux, Khalil Joreige
from the filmmaker club at Le cinema l'après-midi, on June 10th 2006

Really interesting discussion among filmmakers who get into the artistic concerns of filmcraft, and the ideology of Dumont's aesthetics. Although the atmosphere is friendly and Grandrieux is clearly in total connivence. They are not promoting a commercial product with complacent questions here. This type of live radio show winds up a little confusing and disorganized, leaving us frustrated by interrupted sentences and spontaneous digressions that never answered a question raised along the way. The interview would gain in intelligence if written down and edited, structured without this urge to say too much at the time. An interesting approach to interview resulting in a richer, deeper material than the press conference digest in Cannes for instance (partial transcript).
The art of cinema is the center of discussion. They talk of his relationship with actors and viewers, how a film commands and alter perception of reality. Dumont doesn't explain his synopsis here but confesses why he makes films.
Former philosopher, turned autodidact director, he speaks with self-confidence and a certain authority that could be alienating if he didn't place the audience at the core of his theory. It does sound a little all-knowing and condescending, maybe a feeling prompted by his recent win of the Grand Jury Prize for Flandres at Cannes 2006.
Which brings the question : "How to speak of cinema?"
Sometimes putting delicate images into words desacralizes the poetry in them by an excess of vulgar materiality. I mean filmmakers aren't always the best persons to explicit their instinctive inspiration, but they are the first people to go to.

* * *


Dumont admits "intellectual/illustrative cinema" is boring, he doesn't believe in Cinema of Emptiness. Cinema = Time. Closest art to life itself. Primordial sensibility. Cinema isn't imaginary. What he wants is a simple cinema of reality : the metaphysics of banality. Going beyond intellectual complexity (desires, will, ideas of cinema) in order to make the shot a beginning : nothing. There is nothing to see. No preconceived ideas, no intentions, no established meaning, just a "nothing" that will reverberate into the audience and make sense then through the articulation of montage that echo one plan with another.
Cinema is a powerful but complicate art. Plans, aesthetic values, positions of actors in the shot, light, camerawork, sound... A complex art requiring a lot of upstream work, which paradoxally allows to reach ultimately an apparent simplicity. He humbles before great masterpieces (without citing any films or auteurs in particular). "Cinema isn't technical, I learn when I walk down the street, by meeting people" he says. Cinema is about patience, humility, a look upon others. Today's cinema is overwhelmed by codes, clichés, references to other films. Dumont believes in "decodage".
A film is an experience of astonishment (to be flabbergasted). The subject isn't the object in the film, but the gaze on this object.


To write a film is to wait for images, sensations to come up, and to reject silly images. (In this he meets David Lynch's own method)
To grasp a scene Dumont writes down the description of a sensation in a literary style, like a novel. But this is only a preparation, literature cannot be filmed. Only remains the emotion summoned, refined by its wording yet devoid of any constructed sense, and will be the raw substance to work on during shooting. Working hard to go beyond clichés. There is nothing to see. The contemplation of a cinema story is secondary. The audience needs a motif however, a basic love story for identification, to relate to the work. Mise-en-scène can never go too far into abstraction.


The most difficult is to make the set designer understand he shouldn't touch anything on location. After a long location scouting, the right place imposes itself and should be preserved intact, thus dismissing all the intentions mentionned in script. Any accentuation, characterization is out of question. The scenes will adapt to the real location instead, to maintain the authenticity and truth of a living space with genuine history.


Dumont prefers the ingenuity of non-actors who do not ressort to performance tricks. They don't bring in a "prepared color". Non-actors convey with their real-life personality (which belongs to the story) everything that is needed for the film credibility. He regrets his experience with professional actors on Twentynine Palms, and made it despite their active acting. Acting virtuosity is prohibited. "I expect nothing, I await for a miracle to happen, an accident" he declares.
He knows exactly what he wants from the actors, so improvisation is not welcomed. And he makes sure the actors do not know too much about the action planned in a scene to preserve spontaneity and surprises. He's very demanding with actors, pushing them to their limits, against their resistance, insisting, making several takes (up to 15). And then being able to give up when it fails to happen, dropping the scene altogether. There are a lot of wasted out-takes. He's not constrained by script imperatives. He lets chance and accidents rewrite the course of the story, according to what succeeds or not during shooting. For instance the actress on Flandres cried instead of saying her lines and he kept the scene as is. But another actor abandonned the set, because of the directorial (dictatorial?) pressure. "We cannot shoot with maximum security", he says, speaking of the shooting conditions with bomb stunts on Flandres, "the possibility of risk saves a part for lively events".


Direct sound, mono, without much sound mix at all. Recording reality, out of control, waiting for something to happen, the accident. (same moto)


Like a painter who paints a mountain that ultimately blends in on the canvas where there is no mountain to be seen anymore. Sense is no longer at stake, what he likes is to work where the sense is gone. Reality offers the presence of things that do not imply a narrative construction. Dumont struggles against construction. Dissipate sense. Prevent an actor to formulate meaning. Make the auteur (Ego, gaze) vanish. Because the non-neutral audience is there, coming in with their own emotional load (desires), and a need of sense. The viewer is "full". Cinema must balance the equilibrium with a whole audience, and provide a full film, finished, ruled, moral, political. The heart of the work is in the story (conveyed by actors and scenes), the goal is to carry this story. Takes can be or should be mediocre, unfinished, spontaneous, real, away from the overstated stylization. He says "cut" when he feels the exposition of the audience was sufficient. Cinema is in the montage, that's where Dumont input a suggestive meaning.


The art to compose cinema elements together. A shot doesn't matter for itself. Shots too pretty, with an overt aesthetization are discarded. What interests him are the transitions obtained in editing opposition. Associating banal shots that will surge with an extraordinary exposure on the editing table by ways of confrontation with another flat shot. Imprevisibility sparks up on the editing table, long after a shooting "out of control", after watching the dailies. Contemplating the exact transition between shots, the right timing, he feels intuitively the shots to be alright.
Grandrieux and Dumont discuss the opening sequence of Flandres: A wide stationary shot of a distant farm to generate a great force. Cut to an extreme close up of a body part, an arm just hurt by the opening of the gate. The close up enters abruptly "inside" the previous shot, and the viewer is pulled in alongside.
The film is a "viewer montage". What is edited isn't what is seen on screen but the sensations, culture, experience, sensibility inside the audience. The viewer is captured into the screen. The thrill is generated by an alteration of the viewer's habits by projecting something unusual. The film is a go-between which leads the scenario and mise-en-scene to operate from the audience.

* * *
This theoretical talk is fascinating, I like most everything he says (non-actors, importance of montage, script improvisation, neutrality, emotional tabula-rasa, learning cinema in the street...), although the only film I saw (L'Humanité) doesn't yield as much visual power as other minimalist films by ascetic filmmakers. Bresson's system (albeit different) is very constraining and rigorous too but develops a much stronger and coherent language. I find it ironical to elaborate such a "populist" speech for such an elistist cinema. I'm not sure what audience he targets his films for but the popular success doesn't quite follow. I mean it seems contradictory to focus on this "universal viewer" waiting to be mesmerized if such viewer rarely responds to these films. I would always defend minoritary cinemas that never find their niche despite their overlooked quality. But what's funny there is the rational of intellectual films supposedly made to reach for the guts...

More on this once I've seen Flandres, out in France at the end of August 2006.

8 commentaires:

Anonyme a dit…

Thanks for the transcription, Dumont's theories are always interesting to hear. I've caught a couple of Q&A's with Dumont for his earlier films, and he does seem to be fixated on the idea on the physical "meaninglessness" of images (that they only serve to extract the sensation and are disposable), and the idea of disengaging the image from conventional coding. I don't always see that his theories necessarily coincide with what I see in his films, though. :)

For instance, there's already a "coding" in the physicality of his non-actors (Domino is a voluptuous woman in L'Humanité which already implies a carnality to her personality, David rides around in a Hummer which pretty much symbolizes every American excess macho trip). Then there's also the coding of his locations, like rural Northern France or the California desert which already implies a kind of desolation.

Grandrieux is probably the closest to Dumont in terms of tossing conventional notions of narrative cinema (or at least, the "morality" of having to make sense of it) out the window, so I'm not surprised that they were feeding off each other's comments during the discussion. I wonder if he's been working on anything since La Vie nouvelle. Like Dumont, I don't quite know what to make of him yet, I see things that make me think one way, then he says (or does something) that makes me think another. Humanist? Provocateur?

HarryTuttle a dit…

I haven't read much about Dumont, and wasn't even tempted to watch Twentynine Palms after the critical pan. So this post was just my notes from this only interview, and putting it all back in order thematically.

You put it into words better than I could. ;)
"the idea on the physical "meaninglessness" of images (that they only serve to extract the sensation and are disposable), and the idea of disengaging the image from conventional coding."

Like you say, I find his theory a little dubious compared to what he actually achieves on film. And I'm rather disturbed by his manipulation of non-actors.
I could imagine Bresson was similarly estranged when he came up with his cinematographe theory. So maybe Dumont and Grandrieux make a cinema too "new" that we cannot properly appreciate it. Although without enough distance to judge, there seems to be more "theory" than transcendence in this difficult fringe of cinema. Still very interesting but not landmarking.

I haven't heard about Grandrieux's recent projects either.
I still haven't managed to catch a screening of Sombre yet, even though it has popped out a couple times since I first discovered Grandrieux with La Vie Nouvelle.
He's one of the highlights of this Filmmakers Club show, with Pascal Bonitzer. They talk about films in a very profound way.

HarryTuttle a dit…

What's self-contradictory in his words is that he's a White Elephant trying hard to sound like a Termite (borrowing Farber's taxonomy).
He says he refuses thoughful intentions, meaning, construction, aesthetic sophistication, acting virtuosity, that he welcomes accident and happenstances just like a Termite would. But in fact his cinema is very much rigorous and only HIM is in command, to achieve his auteurist vision, with a thoughtful formalist montage (which defines a very constructed aesthetics nomatter what he says), like every White Elephant does.
I think he's just shy to admit he's a dictator type of director (maybe because of the bad publicity? I don't know).

Anonyme a dit…

Heheh, yes! During the Twentynine Palms Q&A, he was very articulate about how we should view the film, not in terms of narrative, but as an abstract work, where the only thing that matters is the sensation. So if he's even structuring the audience's way of seeing, that's not exactly serendipity or happenstance.

The funny thing is, after pretty much a skewering by one hostile audience question after another, he then kept repeating that we should stop trying to assign meaning to the images because they don't exist, they're chance and incidental: the people, the landscape, can be erased. Then when someone asked (paraphrasing) "If the people aren't important, then why didn't you kill them off at the beginning of the film?", his answer was something like "because the audience needs a crutch, someone to identity with, or they won't get it". Anyway, it sounded as though he had all these lofty ideas, but he still knew that he had to work within this preset audience coding to be able to get this abstract sensation. So how abstract is it really if he admits to coding it for the audience's sake? There's the conundrum! ;)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Revealing story about this Q&A. ;)

As a former philosopher he should be able to articulate a lucid and honest theory of his work, without projecting too much expectations in the audience.
In this interview he sounded almost embarassed to be refered as a philosopher, thus why he promptly dissmissed "thinking cinema".
It's a curious posture for a philosopher, even a rebellious one...

pierre a dit…


Just a quick mesage to inform you of the birth of a new blog in English about French cinema:


You are welcome to visit and pass the word.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for the tip Pierre.

On second thought, Dumont's allegation about the minimum requirement for a love story doesn't make much sense afterall...
He even stressed the fact that the ending of Flandres had to give hope with a suggestion of a happy end.
I don't understand how he could push his conception of cinema so far into abstraction without being able to overcome the popular identitification issue. Many filmmakers succeed to develop an entire film without a lead couple and love story. (Sokurov's The Sun, Alonso's Fantasma, Dardenne's La Promesse or Rosetta, Cantet's Ressources Humaines...) It's not impossible. In fact, discarding the romance melo seems to be the first step to expose a raw humanity, the primal aspects of people.

HarryTuttle a dit…

More radio interviews with Bruno Dumont (in French):
-L'Avventura with Laure Adler on France Culture (almost 1h of interview)
-Culture et Dépendence with Christine Masson on France Inter