“I don’t really care so much what people say about me because it usually is a reflection of who they are. For example, if people wish I would sound like I used to sound, then it says more about them than it does me.”—Prince
It’s a hit! Released in a whopping 300 French cinemas the day of its Cannes Competition premiere, Bruno Dumont’s latest comedy is his most successful film yet at the French box office. (As of early June, it has, unbelievably, more than 500,000 admissions.) Long considered brooding and Bressonian, a staunch proponent of naturalism with a predilection for non-actors, spartan dialogue, and primal gestures, Dumont has nevertheless sprung a few surprises over the years in a body of work that has consistently been ripe for auteurist reading. First came the English-language Twentynine Palms (2003), which, despite the underlying cruelty and simmering violence lacing the film’s surface, still registered as a shock, both within and outside of the film’s diegesis, as critics and audiences debated its supposedly outlandish conclusion. The mythic American desert landscape and tangled naked bodies as land art in full nod to Zabriskie Point (1970) were new to Dumont’s cinema, though the materialist and metaphysical binaries and general coarseness of tone were very much in keeping with his two previous films, his enormously influential debut, La vie de Jésus (1997), and L’humanité (1999). Later came a star, as Juliette Binoche took on the title role in Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), adding uncanny celebrity wattage to a film which also notably included real-life patients from a mental facility who not only play alongside her, but with her—her body and face the loci of hugs, kisses, gropes, pokes, and the occasional deposit of spittle.
But the greatest surprise occurred two years ago at the Quinzaine’s premiere of P’tit Quinquin, the oddball four-part made-for-Arte television policier, when the packed audience repeatedly burst into laughter, stayed the course for nearly five hours, and stuck around to ask Dumont about his intentions. “To make people laugh,” he replied rather dryly. When an older woman very touchingly commended him for a wonderful film “worthy of high art,” but confessed to finding it dark, despairing, and not funny at all, the filmmaker shrugged and told her that such an assertion revealed more about her than it did his film. It sounded unduly harsh on the spot and she seemed crushed, but it was simply a candid and confident response that rang true—and typical of Dumont, who is ever the embodiment of steely intelligence and discomfiting calm. P’tit Quinquin was subsequently seen by over 1.5 million viewers on French TV and proved without a doubt that France’s most austere auteur could not only make terrific television, but also television for the masses (unlike, say, Alexander Kluge). P’tit Quinquin is funny, strange, moving, and deceptively sadistic all at once. The Arte commission was a worthwhile risk for the broadcaster as much as for the filmmaker, and Dumont’s cinema would likely never be the same again.
Case in point, Ma Loute. That his latest film, his eighth feature, returns to the environs of la Côte d’Opal in northern France where P’tit Quinquin takes place, and redeploys comedic narrative lines that are similar, such as a detective plot with two bumbling officers (locals who are most definitely nordistes with heavy accents) and a story of young love at its centre, suggests a desire to expand his TV experiment into full cinematic form, which he achieves with great aplomb. Those similarities, however, have been used to criticize—hastily, lazily, and laconically—the film as an unoriginal replay, as reductive variations on a theme ratcheted up a notch or two, if not three. But not only is Ma Loute in another register altogether, it is, most significantly, a work for another medium: cinema. P’tit Quinquin revealed new talents in Dumont (especially as a director of physical comedy and a capacious writer of serials) and is a raw, shape-shifting work whose strengths in part stem from its constraints and the filmmaker’s will, desire, and adeptness to experiment within them.
But with Magritte-like compositions and eye-popping colours, Ma Loute is extremely beautiful to look at. By its very grand design, it declares its interest in the cinematic image, and rides an outré and uncomfortable line between bloat and bite. It’s definitely a Dumont film, deceptively literary like all of his other works—one senses the locations and mise en scène are deeply imbued by the author’s writerly descriptions. But with an added emphasis on mischievous wordplay like homonyms and double entendres, the provocative Ma Loute is in parts subversive, perverse, and politically incorrect, while it fashions a bifurcated study of good and evil, love and hate, and, ultimately, social injustice and the sheer vulgarity of vanity itself.
Precariousness is a state that unites many of Dumont’s characters both on-screen and off. He often casts non-actors from poor or working-class regions in the north of France, their rugged physicality serving as photogenic markers of experience and sometimes exhaustion. His allegiances are eminently clear in Ma Loute’s entangled class clash, which strikes an urgent resonance in contemporary society (especially in France, where cycles of oppression/privilege have come home to roost). Hyperbolic accusations of exploitation have periodically shadowed Dumont, who has repeatedly said that he returns to the north because it is where he’s from (the town of Bailleul) and that he feels more comfortable among the locals. The social schisms existing between his ‘”actors” and the filmmaker (a former philosophy professor, no less) are ones that separate so many artists and their subjects, and are systemic and deeply engrained in the modes of production. Just look at the history of Flemish iconography (and patronage), which has left a solid imprint upon Dumont’s work.
When Dumont shows how non-actors harbour an intensity and presence unmatched by professionals, he is holding up a mirror and not being disingenuous about it. He’s being frank. The broad-stroke caricature, which forms the portrayal of the gargantuan Inspecteur Machin (machin means “thing” but also of course conjures “machine”) and his sidekick Malfoy (phonetically, “bad faith”) stems partially from traditions of northern representation and the folkloric carnival, where exaggerations are used to induce laughter through parade and parody. As the Laurel-and-Hardyesque duo investigates “mysterious” disappearances in the region (revealed to us early on, they are hardly mysterious!), the characters themselves become comedic set pieces, Machin’s rotund silhouette a helium-filled replica of Magritte’s top-hatted man. With squeaks and creaks, Machin is like a rubbery balloon, whose physical movements are limited by his corpulence; he rolls down a hill, falls over, and eventually, in one of the film’s most jubilatory gags, floats like a balloon cut loose, careening across the sky.
The story itself is rather bare-boned for a period-piece/cannibalism comedy. It is the summer of 1910 and the Belle Époque is in full swing—a mere five years before Camille Claudel. Several tourists have vanished near la baie de la Slack, a stunning, big-sky landscape comprised of sand dunes and oyster parks. Inspectors Machin and Malfoy are on the case as the Van Peteghem family, an upper-bourgeois clan from inland Tourcoing, descends upon the Bay with froufrou cacophony. They settle into their vacation home, the imposing, high-upon-the hill Typhonium, a real location iconic to the region for its faux Egyptian architecture. Fabrice Luchini plays the pater familias, practically deformed by his costumed prosthetics, with a perpetual hunched back and a vocal range that never quite settles on a chosen accent. Draped in chiffon and lace and corseted to the nines, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi embodies a role not so distant from her patrician pedigree, and is convincing as a perpetual lady-in-suffering or mater dolorosa. Reined in by her corset, she gives a superb performance (much to her own consternation, her lost look often pierces the film’s fiction) and is the foil to Juliette Binoche’s tante Aude, haughty to the latter’s jaunty. With histrionic flair, impressive, wide-mouthed over-articulation, voluminous hats containing both flora and fauna, and prone to swanning gestures worthy of a silent Sarah Bernhardt, Binoche is pushed to the edge of decency and drollery. It is as if the three big stars are perpetually hanging from the Bay’s cliffs, jagged and eroded, trying to steady their footing in order to transcend the grotesqueries of their characters. Together, the Van Peteghems—the children aside—are a real pack of nerves, especially in the presence of the locals whom they exoticize yet from whom they wish to keep a healthy distance, as art once again imitates life.
And, yet, the women and girls depend on the Brufort men, L’Éternel and his adolescent son Ma Loute (a term of endearment, though a northern dictionary also makes reference to sexual innuendo), both oyster farmers, and passeurs who literally ferry women in their arms across the river. Often squealing with delight, the parasol-wielding belles relish the experience, and Billie, the ravishing Peteghem niece, quickly falls for Ma Loute, he of the dewy brown eyes and Dumbo ears. Played by newcomer and one-namer Raph, Billie is gender-amorphous—more than the disappearances, her sex is the film’s central mystery, sustained by Raph’s interviews and attire in Cannes—but is ultimately revealed in the film to be a boy who dresses as a girl, making impossible the reversal of social codes and transcendence that their burgeoning cross-class love implies. Despite his hurt and rage, Ma Loute cannot bring himself to kill and eat her (though his beating of her is beyond brutal), as the Bruforts are of course responsible for the “mysterious disappearances” and are seen, in full gore, gorging on well-bred human limbs.
Ma Loute is completely off the wall, an anarchic mix of gore, grotesquerie, and burlesque that reaches melodramatic heights with burnished close-ups and soaring music—a haunting aria by unknown Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu, who died in 1894 at the age of 24. The film is rampant with forced comedic pratfalls and enough hysteria to get under one’s skin, but it also features scenes of supernal cinematic beauty and heartbreak. Irreverence aside, the film was inspired by a series of turn-of-the-century postcards, which depict the region, evidencing class divisions as proletarian passeurs carry corseted, floppy-hatted women across the river. One was inscribed with the name “Ma Loute.” Using the archival images as a point of departure, along with hand-tinted photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue guiding choices by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, Dumont recreated the era, not only through meticulous costuming and props, but also via elaborate post-production effects. Before P’tit Quinquin, all of Dumont’s films were shot on 35mm, but Ma Loute’s mise en scène was perfected in digital post, as were all of the comedic sounds. All post-1910 construction at the shooting locations was erased (especially the houses which dot the Bay) and the colours were bumped up and outlines crisped. Not unlike Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), Ma Loute is an astonishing colour film, except the hand-painting occurred on the digital images rather than on the objects and faces. Widescreen, with foreshortened, cropped, and deeply silhouetted people and objects, Ma Loute mixes the compositional rigour and surreal, fatal beauty (and fading glamour) of Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) with Tati’s physical, sonic, and repetitive gags and Buñuel’s black humour. (There are also passages of breathtaking, pop-infused lyricism reminiscent of Sirk.) The violence, transcendence, and transgression that have been the hallmarks of Dumont’s cinema remain, but the filmmaker has refused stasis and exploded his formula—unlike, say, the Dardennes, whose paint-by-numbers, station-of-the-cross schema has come to ironically mimic the dehumanized factory lines they are critiquing.
Ultimately, Ma Loute is a work of ludic imagination, harbouring the awesome sense of discovery that attended the age of mechanical reproduction, and thus the birth of photographic and cinematic images. As the Bruforts could be ripped from one of August Sander’s typological series and the Van Peteghem women from a Lartigue photograph or a Eugène Boudin tableau, Dumont stays true to his vision, elevating the profane and denigrating the sacred, while taking artistic risks and re-investing in the power of the cinema. The underlying implications of the film, beyond the gags, the hijinks, and the genre-bending, are undoubtedly relevant to today and scarily prescient. Though Dumont would deny any social reading or relevance to the film, taking two steps outside the Palais confirms the presence of the gaudy and carnivalesque, i.e., the creatures of Cannes. (Les Malouciens are everywhere!) At a time when frivolity and vanity have reached new heights, the gaps between rich and poor are forever widening, and society at large can seem so damn vulgar and ridiculous (certainly on the Croisette, but also elsewhere, everywhere; there must be selfies in hell), deranged humour, abstraction, aesthetic beauty and the destabilization of the real can be temporarily restorative in this mad, mad world. Next up for Dumont is a Jeanne d’Arc musical with music by Igorrr. Three Rs, and I cannot wait.