Owen Kydd Interviews Bruno Dumont

The Cinematheque
August 11, 2023

This interview between acclaimed Canadian visual artist Owen Kydd and French auteur Bruno Dumont was conducted in conjunction with The Cinematheque’s 2017 program Bruno Dumont: Material Bodies.” Occasioned by the 20th anniversary of Dumont’s debut feature, La vie de Jésus (1997)—a work that, for many, signalled the arrival of a modern artistic heir to master Robert Bresson—the program included a 35mm revival of that landmark film along with screenings of his controversial masterpiece L’Humanité (1999) and his brilliant, baffling one-eighty into Inspector Clouseau-style comedy (and French television) P’tit Quinquin (2014).

Bruno Dumont

Interviewed by Owen Kydd

OK: The Cinematheque’s program is occasioned by the 20th anniversary of your first feature, La vie de Jésus, a seminal work that seemed to establish a set of philosophical problems and formal conceits, not to mention a geographical setting, that you continue to return to. I would like to ask you specifically about the wide and durational images of the landscape in La vie de Jésus and subsequent films, such as Freddy lying in the grass looking up at the clouds, or the guy” and girl” approaching the lighthouse in Hors Satan. How do these images help you to establish a precise phenomenology for each film? Do you see these images as a more pure presentation of time and space that establishes a flow upon which your characters’ more adulterated lives are then mapped?

BD: Landscapes are at the heart of the characters’ actions, as the most visible and metaphorical aspects of their interiority. In La vie de Jésus, the landscapes” are of Freddy’s interiority. Flanders is no longer Flanders: pasture and woods, lively hedges, ponds, streets—they are the beating heart and the boiling blood of Freddy. The cinematic reality is, strictly speaking, a view of the soul, its panorama. Filmed and framed, the landscapes lose their own reality to become images per se: quasi-spiritual representations of what is at stake in the plot and which binds all the characters. It is, therefore, a cinematic mysticism that is at work in the unity of this whole: time, landscapes, human beings, beasts…

OK: The program of your work in Vancouver is titled Material Bodies,” which is not only a reference to the specific way you frame and direct the human body, but also a response to your comments that, for instance, The power of cinema lies in the return of man to the body,” or that, Before thinking, there is the body.” In many of your films, the characters often seem to turn away from the narrative and psychologically locate themselves within their bodies, within their skin. Do these absorptive moments function differently to the conscious gestures in your films? They seem to oppose any attempt to reveal a subconscious in favour of presenting an interiority that is inaccessible to us.

BD: The psychology of the cinematographic characters in my films is not very human. They are more like human fragments, and fragmented so that they are more visible, brought to the view of the spectator. Cut out in this way they are the human beast,” so to speak, which awakens in its fangs all the possibilities of grace and the culmination of love and goodness. This upsurging is all the more visible if the base is arid and bare; as if the characters are coming out of the earth, under the natural and spiritual conditions of the upheavals of their existence and their freedom. The real is dissolved there, transfigured.

OK: P’tit Quinquin is, like your most recent film Slack Bay, a shift in register to comedy. What does comedy allow you to do that your previous approach did not? I find that the more surreal aspects of your work, now in the context of farce, read as more absurdist—albeit gleefully so—where in previous films, they seemed to point towards the spiritual or transcendental.

BD: Every being fluctuates. Fluctuation is the very expression of a human nature that sees otherness and oppositions—good/evil, beauty/​ugliness, laughter/tears—where there is really only variations of the same. Night is a decrease in the clarity of the day, which is then an increase of the night. The other, a variation of the same. Belief in the realities of day or night (and, in this case, of all opposites) is thus a fad, a myth. We humans are, at the core, variations of each other; hence the forces of gravitational attraction to the human nucleus, and the forces contrary to our independence and freedoms. The human race unites us all in this tumult. To this universal attraction of the nature of beings and things, how can we apply genres, or cinematographic genres? Genres are also myths, superstitions in some way, shortcuts in a view that is difficult for each and everyone of us, or shortcuts in this general upheaval where we are elbow-to-elbow. The farce is thus the germination of the tragic. The tragic is the germination of the farce. The grotesque and the sublime coexist in the molecular substance of beings, and their expressions—apparently distinct—are only variations of the same human nucleus. The tragi-comic thus covers the whole spectrum of the human, of a united and mystical whole where a landscape is still a human ending … To separate them—comedy here, tragedy there—is to produce an abstraction, an impulse of the mind, which does not make cinema but cinematographic ectoplasms. There is no opposition between cinematographic genres or cinematographic races, but instead only variations of the expressions of human nature, of the human race, in the bubbling vagaries of existence—a great mystical bath, which only cinema transfigures and sees. Only intellectuals see distinctness where there is flux. Here is the superstition: that of pure and logical intelligence, and of its value as a blueprint. (The peasant, on the other hand, feels the rain coming in the full sun.) Freddy is a bad guy, but he is not deprived of grace. Only a mystic sees this tumultuous, vertiginous, and contrasted reality of man.

Translation by Anouk Phéline
Owen Kydd studied at SFU and UCLA and currently lives and works in Los Angeles. He has recently exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, and the International Center of Photography (New York). Kydd’s works are housed in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the San Francisco MoMA, the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Albright-Knox Museum (Buffalo, New York), and numerous others.

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