Love in the Afternoon: L'humanité (Bruno Dumont, 1999)

Curator's Note

This early afternoon scene from L’humanité (1999, France) serves to illustrate why its director Bruno Dumont has been associated with the “New French Extremity.” Yet the sex act—graphic especially through its sound close-ups—is not the main subject here. The real subject is Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotté), or more precisely his gaze, which imbues the image, here and in the rest of L’humanité (which Dumont insists on spelling with a lower-case “h”). Pharaon is a police lieutenant in the northern-French town of Bailleul. Earlier that day he was the witness of a horrible crime. Now he is standing here in the doorframe, hollow-eyed, his shoulders sloping, his jacket washed-out, staring at his neighbor Domino (Sévérine Caneele) who he is not so secretly in love with and her boyfriend Joseph (Phillipe Tullier). But what is Pharaon really looking at, what is his gaze seeing, what is it seeing through his human eyes? Through the drawn curtains shines a diffuse early-afternoon light. In front of the window is a table lamp. With no-one near it, the lamp switches on, and off, on, and off again. Pharaon is not normal, nor is this film itself, as will be confirmed later when we see its protagonist levitating between the flowers in his community garden. Beneath its naturalist, over-aestheticized surface, L’humanité harbors the miraculous nature of Pharaon’s blank stare. To make a long story short, Pharaon is the mute Christ, the word become flesh, and simultaneously a rather slow man, perhaps even an idiot lacking the word, unable as he is to express his all all-too-human desires. Less-than-human and more-than-human at once, Pharaon is his lack, his expressive inability to express himself. It is this expressive muteness of his gaze that we see reflected in the blissful light falling through the curtains, and it is this immanent presence that we see Pharaon being absorbed by in the film’s final shot, his face growing calm, even smiling, as in paraphrase of the final moments of the priest in Robert Bresson’s 1951 Journal d’un cure de champagne (on which L’humanité is a variation). “Tout est grâce.” “All is grace.” Dumont’s films are extreme indeed, perhaps even more so in a spiritual than in a carnal way.


A fascinating analysis of this scene. I am most intrigued by the lengthy second shot, which seems to offer a p.o.v. that is anterior to what is then established in the shot/reverse-shot sequence that follows. If the light from the curtain constitutes Pharaon's gaze, I wonder if the position of the camera here might be described via Pasolini's notion of the free indirect p.o.v. shot---the 'expressive muteness of his gaze' and that of the camera (directly opposite) involved in a relation of exchange; something along the lines then, of the immanent presence of camera-as-'mute Christ' (and vice versa). (In this regard, perhaps it is significant that the glowing window also resembles a screen---source of light, but also surface of registration.) Very thought-provoking post!

Thanks Niels for getting this week on Extreme Cinema started! I think how you read Dumont is interesting precisely because it raises the question of the spiritual through the carnal. In addition, your suggestion of how desire operates is equally provocative. I'm curious if you understand these points (spiritual, carnal, and desire) as necessarily related as a form of extremism, or simply working more locally in Dumont's film?

Interesting post, Niels. The inclusion of Dumont in a week on extreme cinema is an interesting choice, because of the way his films throw up so many questions about how we define extremity in this context. Although Dumont's early work was initially gathered under the banner of the 'new French extremity' or 'new extremism' trend for its inclusion of graphic scenes of sex and violence, I would agree that the extremity of Dumont's vision isn't located in the directness of graphic representation, but in something like the way that those shocking moments are re-routed towards something much more unsettling and mysterious that you are describing here under the banner of grace or spirituality. I guess I have a question similar to Adam's in that I wonder how central you think the moments of graphic sex /representational violence are to Dumont's articulation of spirituality in this film (or indeed elsewhere).

Thanks all for your comments. In my view the extremity and sensuous nature of Dumont’s films functions to ground and immanentize their Catholic vocabulary (Pharaon's levitation, the shot of a church entrance). Dumont makes religious films in a world abandoned by God, which arguably is the same world, but more extreme, as Bresson’s (depending on how material or spiritual one wants to read Bresson). Dumont’s realism is explicitly anti-social. Many of his films are set in traditionally working-class milieus and they have very, in fact somewhat stereotyped working-class protagonists. However, ultimately it is not socioeconomic conditions but more natural (biological and spiritual, yet not super-natural) forces that drive these characters. Anti-social, Dumont’s realism, which is a humanism, can probably best be qualified as secular-religious. This all works out most clearly in "L’humanité," a film that, I agree Matt, is shot in a free-indirect style, as its images are imbued with Pharaon's gaze. As argued, the model Dumont worked and distinguished himself from, cinematically, philosophically, and arguably also religiously, is "Journal d’un curé de campagne." Pharaon even looks like the curé. In an interview Dumont states that he spent a year finding his Pharaon: “I needed someone who was massive and very sensitive at the the same time, and with somewhat bulging eyes.” (1) Someone like Claude Laydu (the curé in Bresson’s film) in other words. We may even wonder whether the lamp in L’humanité is a citation of Journal. Paul Renard writes: "Bresson, in a black-and-white film, insists on the black. Cassocks of priests, the presbytery’s interior during the night, undergrowth cast in darkness. In contrast with this black we have the white pages of the journal in which the curé is constantly seen writing. These contrasts reflect the battle between good and evil, between grace and sin, but in a way that refuses univocal manicheism. In fact, the darkness springs to mind [jaillit] because of and in the light: the lamp lighting the priest’s desk symbolizes conscience seeking to open itself up to grace, but, on the other hand, the whiteness of the notebook’s pages covered by the black ink of the curé’s words correspond to the ambiguity of an undertaking that yields analysis inasmuch as narcissism." (2) I much like this reading of "Journal." Dumont takes Bresson to the extreme. "L’humanité" renders very sensuous the way Bresson adapted Bernanos’s “All is grace.” If all is grace, grace has become very normal. Pharaon embodies this banalization of the miraculous. (1) In: Gorin, “Une journée au Nord," "Télérama," (2) Paul Renard, “Les Adaptations cinématographiques des romans,” in L’Association Jean Mitry ed., "Le Nord et le cinéma" (Le Temps des Cerises, 1998), p. 225-6.

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