Teenage life is a unified commodity that appears diffident depending on when and where it transpires to happen; like death it’s a fact that will be not dodged but may be escaped, only after perseverance, pain (and if you’re lucky) pleasure. Bruno Dumont’s debut feature film: La vie de Jesus he places within this purgatory, which is at once poetic and unreal (but not socially realistic), as cinema is not (and cannot be) reality but only an unveiling. This veil that is pulled away by Dumont is about not shying away from the cruelty that rises inside and sometimes releases in an outward display of our base reactions.
La vie de Jesus takes place in Bailleul (the childhood town of Dumont), a small town in Northern France that borders Belgium; like many of it’s ilk, the only effect of it’s existence on youth is boredom and yearning; a thirst for anything to dull the monotonous nature of their existence.
Freddy (David Douche) is our focus, your average (unemployed) man-child constantly bemused at the cosmic joke of existence (maybe this is his answer to looking like a stupider, younger Wayne Rooney); his life revolves around his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), riding his motor scooter (sometimes alone, sometimes with his friends) through the unforgivable Flanders countryside and the editable waiting (always with the waiting)…
Like teenage existence nothing much happens in La vie de Jesus, there is a death, petty racism and rape but it’s the effects on Freddy which Dumont is interested in, the dark side of all of us; he shows us characters desperate for communion, beauty and purpose in an alienating world. Of course a higher order of connection is possible, but not without difficult sacrifice.
We open on an extreme close up of Freddy’s head wearing crash helmet and driving his motor scooter through the Flanders countryside. The helmet (which we will return throughout the film) is a protective shield to defend a lapsed battered masculinity, for cinema is made to film material: the body. By filming the material, the mechanical, the worker, Dumont arrives at the spiritual. This helmet becomes the only way Freddy can release tears without being seen, which at once is an escape and a prison of entrapment from which there might never any escape. The use of the circular roads around Bailleul that Freddy and his friends are constantly riding through are like a refrain, a primal scream of the possibility of escape that will constantly be beyond the grasp of local teenagers.
La vie de Jesus is a near silent film, like it’s protagonists we’re alone with our thoughts and our ears; for noises that spark when we pass through experience. What is there for teenagers to do, while waiting? The answer is the unnamed to the teenager: Eros and Thanatos. The representation of sex is very matter of fact (with shots of real penetration), again relating to our base instincts. Dumont claims interest in the cruelty of the amorous connection that returns us to the animal condition, sex that becomes a need that Freddy and Marie must satisfy. Sex for them is about pleasure and need, both of which come and go (go and come) and which be satisfied again another time, ad nauseum.
Love stories tend to be nearly all wars, well La vie de Jesus is NOT a love story but there is pain, suffering, sadness, love, joy, sex and death; in fact those emotions sum up all existence with man’s need to face the evil within themselves. That is in face how we raise ourselves and what Dumont (a non believer) is getting at by calling the film: La vie de Jesus. He relates it back to his reading of Vie de Jesus by the philologist Ernest Renan who relates the life of Jesus by removing everything that was supernatural, all the folklore to show a purely humanistic Jesus. Dumont is rendering this spirit, compassion and poetry within the film.
At the mid point of the film Freddy and his friends molest a fellow student in a packed school corridor and when affronted by the girl’s father (in front of their parents) and accused of rape, they are numbed into incredulity, Dumont attempts to explain this perverse situation by pointing out that their disenchantment comes through powerless or attachment to the modern world that surrounds them (and is passing them by). In actuality the one great question (among many, none of which are answered) is when faced with a freedom so great anything is possible, what are you going to do?
An Arab called Kader (Kader Chaatouf) meanwhile is paying attention to Marie which will bring us further down the line of narrative completion; the consequence of which is that Freddy kicks him to death watched on by his bored lonely friends. Dumont’s portrayal of this societal situation is more a question than answer, more j’accuse than anything else, he commented in the booklet provided with The Masters of Cinema edition of La vie de Jesus that, “I wanted to try and show how a whole mechanism comes into play. All it takes is to be a slightly fragile person… This love rivalry would have perhaps ended differently if the opponent hadn’t been North African. Arabs today play the role of scapegoat in a society that has become unhinged. I wanted to show home the underlying racism of society can transform a banal love story into an event into society, and a fragile, innocent individual into a murderer. Our society produces this.”
No real attempt to make you feel empathy for Freddy or his friends (or even for Marie and Kader), but that is not the point; Dumont is peering out of the darkness, showing us the capacity for pity and remorse, showing us the true humanist is that you must love someone no matter how rotten they are. At the end of the film Freddy lies in a field gazing towards the sky (light) aware of his actions, a light has gone off. Dumont calls this a “glimmer of light” both for Freddy and more importantly with the spectator who he hopes will live enlightened by his fellow man and surroundings, and at this point he stops…