From European arthouse’s leading misery-guts to absurdist clown, the career switcheroo from Bruno Dumont is without doubt the most surprising volte–face of recent times. His new film is Slack Bay, a 1910-set love story featuring class conflict, inept detectives, cannibalism and incest.
Martyn Conterio: As we’re conducting this chat in the office of video-on-demand service MUBI, what’s your take on non-traditional distribution, VOD and the idea audiences can watch your films on a tablet, iPad, iPhone, etc.?
Bruno Dumont: They do as they wish. It’s always better in the movie theatre, but some people do not go to the cinema and do watch films on iPads. I, too, watch films on my iPad without a problem. There you go.
MC: To Slack Bay. I just wanted to know how long this idea has been gestating and how quickly you got it up and running?
BD: It was the effect, really, following Li’l Quinquin on television…I really wanted to carry on with the comedy. [Then I] had to find a subject matter that worked for comedy also and [make it] cinematic. That’s how Ma Loute came into being [and] wanting to go further with the things I’d developed and created in Li’l Quinquin.
MC: Slack Bay looks like your most expensive-looking film to date. Is it?
BD: Most expensive, yes. It’s expensive because there are movie stars in this [and] a period film costs money. [But what doesn’t change] as always is there is a camera and a microphone – that doesn’t change. The period [dictated the budget]…the money is visible because of the costumes and sets.
MC: I’m interested in the pre-WW1 setting. Can you explain it to me?
BD: I wanted to move away from the current and every-day life and the modern side of my cinema.
MC: Nothing specific to the social milieu of the time, then?
BD: The concept of [recreating] reality has never really interested me. I like to go through that. There is the fact you can’t completely avoid it – it’s there at the surface because you’re going into the reality of the period – but then quickly the content [of Slack Bay] is so absurd and surrealist and goes off the rails. For example, the cannibalism of the Brufort family.
BD: It’s too far-fetched to have a political reading of the subject matter. The bourgeois characters are so over the top and degenerate, it doesn’t represent truth or reality. It’s not naturalistic, so it’s impossible to have a naturalistic reading. I think it talks more about human nature, our leanings and ways of being.
MC: I just wondered because your films deal a lot with working-class figures and in Camille Claudel 1915, your portrait of Paul Claudel is far from flattering.
BD: I believe the bourgeois person is fundamentally a cretin. But I’m pushing the boundaries [with Slack Bay] and in Camille Claudel 1915, [Paul Claudel] is already completely warped.
MC: I take it you’re on the side of the working class?
BD: Both. Absolutely. The world of workers is also completely idiotic. But there’s beauty in both sides. The character André Van Peteghem (Fabrice Luchini) is deeply degenerate, but there’s also something very beautiful [about him].
MC: That’s true. He’s the one character in the family who appreciates the beauty of the bay and interacts with locals without being totally patronising.
BD: It’s not a social depiction. We each and every-one of us has a pendulum inside us which goes between grace and idiocy. I would never say one class is better than the other. It’s not about class, but human nature.
MC: Now to the locations. You make films pretty much where you live in the Pas de Calais region, but this is the first time I’ve spotted a repetition of locations. I’m thinking of Outside Satan.
BD: It’s a landscape I know and it’s very specific in character and has an accent. Because there’s a specific character to the area and the people you need to take that into the film. The answer is ‘why not?’ If I was from Brittany, I’d find locations there. I believe each filmmaker must find his or her landscape. It’s no deeper or more important than that.
MC: Do the films you’ve made in that area, then, not somehow feel more personal? Compared to say, Flanders, TwentyNine Palms or Camille Claudel 1915.
BD: No, I don’t think so. It’s just that there must be something that embodies what you’re trying to do.
MC: This might be a stupid question, but does the extravagant Van Peteghem house exist or is it a set?
BD: Yes [it exists]. It’s not in the same location [as the film’s setting], but it really exists. It was from the turn of the century when follies were built, a Victorian thing, and there was a fashion for neo-Egyptian architecture and neo-African. The bourgeois would build these follies. Just like there did in England. It’s very bourgeois.
MC: Slack Bay has a pretty large cast, this time with movie stars and non-professionals acting side by side.
BD: The non-professionals are so close to who they are that they’re very good at it, but they’re rather limited to just that. The professionals…I made the climb the walls.
MC: You’ve worked with Juilette Binoche before, but how was it with Valeria Bruni-Tadeschi and Fabrice Luchini? How open were they to your working style and methods?
BD: What I was interested in was…everybody knows their tune and I was interested in seeing them play out of tune, so to speak. I wanted them to go into some far-fetched, wacky style, so that the actors forget what they know [their craft and training]. They enjoyed it. The way Luchini is as an actor and the characters he normally plays, I’m not interested in at all and I told him that when I met him.
MC: I noticed a detail – much more on second viewing – and that’s in many scenes, the non-professional actors either stare at the camera, look around as if awaiting their cues or their director shouting ‘cut’ or appear star-struck…what’s going on here?
BD: Actually, in terms of being intimidated or star-struck, it was the other way around. The professional, known actors who are intimidated because they saw these people [non-pros] could do their job. And then, it’s just their natural mistakes and human error…it’s those things – when they make such errors – that I find interesting.
MC: A lot of directors would call ‘cut’ and go for a re-take, as if it’s ruined the scene or shot.
BD: I don’t like it when everything is perfectly neat and tidied up. That’s what I’m interested in: keeping those mistakes. You sense that [the creation of the scene] is fragile and I find that very moving.
MC: On to the use of music. You’ve never used music so conventionally before…whereas other filmmakers, it’s entirely par for the course, in terms of your cinema it felt almost radical. When I often think of your films, I think of their silence, the bare bones sound design. Slack Bay is operatic.
BD: I would say [the use of music] is almost stereotypical. It’s a Belgian composer named Guillaume Lekeu. Nobody’s heard of him. He’s a late 19th century post-Romantic, post-Wagnerian composer. I was looking for a theme for Ma Loute and Billie, to emphasis and stress their relationship and wanted something that emphasised a super-romanticism and the music mixes with the comedy unconventionally…it creates harsh transitions.
MC: To finish up, 2017 is the 20th anniversary of The Life of Jesus, your debut feature. How satisfied are you with your career to date?
BD: I’m happy that my career has renewed itself and I’m not saying the same thing all the time. The discovery of comedy for me was pretty revolutionary.
MC: I’ll say.
BD: On that level, Ma Loute is only my second film because it’s something new. Because comedy is not the same as drama, it’s something that regenerates within me. I think Outside Satan really was the end of one specific road and it was harder to go on with that. But maybe I will make some more dramas…but mixing the genres. Ma Loute is dramatic and comedic. I’ve just made Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a musical comedy, and I’ve renewed myself again.
MC: Have you seen The Life of Jesus since you made it?
BD: I have. Very recently, I worked on the digital grading, because it’s been digitalised and I honestly would edit it differently now.
MC: What’s wrong with the editing?
BD: Just looking at it again, the way it was shot, I can sense I would do it differently now.
Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay is now available to watch in UK cinemas nationwide.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn