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The Man with the Child in his eyes...
on 9 May 2004
Award winning filmmaker Bruno Dumont makes singular films that draw on the influence of people like Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and early Federico Fellini, in a clear attempt to create an enhanced state of realism that works both for and against the film and the audience. Also, like his countryman Gaspar Noe, it could be argued that Dumont makes films that challenge the viewer to engage with a story that will undoubtedly take us to some very dark and often shockingly immoral places; giving us characters that are morally ambiguous, often loathsome and, in the case of our central protagonist here, almost pitiful. There aren’t many filmmakers who would choose as their hero of a desolate detective thriller, an innocent man-child who seems to be as socially inept and emotionally damaged as a person could be, but with Police chief Pharaon De Winter, that is exactly what we get.
Dumont makes his bleak vision obvious from the start, with the horrendous discovery of a murdered and mutilated child left naked and bleeding in an autumnal field. The image is a shocking and brutal one; Dumont giving us a punch to the stomach almost from the first frame with lingering close-ups over the wounds and filleted body parts. It’s an image that both establishes and surmises the film as a thematic whole... the loss of innocence being central both with the murdered child and with the character of Pharaon. It is the back-story and the fragile demeanour of Pharaon, and to an extent the evocative performance of non-professional actor Emmanuel Schotte, which anchors the film, giving the audience an emotional spectator. He is our representation. After the aforementioned grizzly discovery there are no macho heroics... Pharaon reacts in the same way as the rest of us; running back to his car, tears streaming down his face, lost in a kind of detached melancholy that continues throughout the film making it a far bleaker work than anything by the likes of Bergman, von Trier of Michael Winterbottom, etc.
Over the course of the film, the narrative unfolds, though we quickly realise that the real detective story at hand is not, ‘who is the killer?’ but more importantly, what has happened to make Pharaon the way he is. Has Pharaon had some sinister part in all of this, or is he merely a constant observer. The idea of voyeurism is an important one in Dumont’s work, with the camera rarely moving... always static, removed from the context of the scene and merely recording things for our benefit. This gives the film a greater degree of realism, though may be a little tiresome for viewers weaned on MTV style crash-cuts... (one hypnotic scene in particular finds our central protagonist tending his allotment for what seems like the best part of twenty-minutes. You have been warned). As the film continues to unfold, and the clues begin to add up we realise that this isn’t going to have a moralistic ending akin to an episode of Colombo (then again, with a central character who lives at home with a controlling mother, who adores the woman who lives down the street and allows her boyfriend to belittle him at every available opportunity and often stands monosyllabic at the back of a room... how on earth could it?).
Dumont has attempted to create a stripped down, bare-naked form of ambient cinema, in which it is the little character details and passages of silence, broken only by shocking violence and mechanical sex, that go towards creating the story. The ending of the film continues in this same vein, and, although it may have been ruined by the other commentator on this page, acts as a shocking epiphany in which every action and subtle line of dialog that has occurred during the epic running time is suddenly given a whole new meaning. Dumont has proven with this, his second feature, that he can reach beyond the tiresome kitchen sink theatrics of his first film, La Vie de Jesus, and incorporate distancing naturalistic techniques (no camera movements, no artificial light, non-professional actors etc) to create a film that is both horrendous and intoxicating in equal measures. Though ‘enjoy’ is certainly the wrong word to use with a film this bleak and confrontational, those amongst you who admire the work of forward thinking European auteurs like Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier will admire and appreciate Dumont’s shattering tour-de-force...