He hits below the belt

by Kaori Shoji

Winning the Grand Prix at Cannes last year for “Flandres” has not altered filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s particular stance. “Yes, the award is nice, but I know that my films are not for everyone. Some people have rejected it in a very strong way,” said the director last month when he was in Tokyo for the French Film Festival.

“However, I have always worked with the conviction that making films is about drawing strong emotions or reactions from the viewer. Otherwise, there would be no point, at least not for me.”

Set in Flanders in northern France, “Flandres” is a film that sets raw sex, gore and violence against the idyllic French countryside.

Dumont, who turned to filmmaking after a career as a philosophy teacher, says it’s not the contrast between story and setting that he aimed for. “One of the misunderstandings of modern man is that the beautiful countryside and acts of gross brutality are opposite things. To me, there are no discrepancies between the two. I set it in Flanders because the aesthetics of the landscape was very pleasing and the quality of the light suited my needs.”

Here the director muses on philosophy, films and the extreme, love/hate reactions his work always seems to provoke.

You were a philosophy teacher and yet “Flandres” is distinguished by an almost total absence of dialogue; the characters hardly ever seem to think and if they did, they don’t pursue or articulate their thoughts.

I think it’s meaningless to put philosophy and movies on the same level. The work of philosophy is to pull the thinker back into reality, to help him structure reality in a coherent way. It’s also the starting point to ask questions. You doubt, you ask the questions, you start to think — such is the philosophical process. On the other hand, movies are not headed in the direction of logic, rather, they aim for meditation or rumination. No movie can claim to be a work of philosophy. They fulfill a totally different need in people.

Have your own thoughts about life and sex changed after making this film?

My personal views on life and sex, no, I don’t think they’ve changed. I’m just as full of doubt and questions as ever. But in regards to filmmaking, I resolve to do better next time. I was told Mizoguchi got angry every time he made a film, and said: “This is s**t!” I feel exactly the same way every time I finish a film. It’s gotten stronger with this one.”

What do you think about the way your films strike nerves in critics and audiences — some people praise it ecstatically while others threaten to break the screen?

That it draws such extreme reactions always surprises me. Because what I aim for, above all, is harmony. On the other hand, it is the objective of films to surprise the audience. And surprise most often comes from a disturbance on the inner mindscape. So I guess that’s what I try to do . . . cause a disruption. But really, I just want to express what I feel and believe onto the screen.

Though it’s hard to fathom what Demester is thinking, it’s even more difficult to gauge what Barbe is thinking. And yet the story is reluctant to go inside her head. Why is that?

Yes, that is right. I identify with Demester, he and I are the same. In fact, the whole of this movie is about me. On the other hand, Barbe is a woman and I don’t know what goes on inside her brain; she incarnates the desire I have for women, though I don’t know or never have understood them. But I do know that women have their basic instincts and just as much bestiality as men. And this is a story about the human instinct, not about higher culture.

What are your thoughts on the Noble Savage?

At the root of the Noble Savage myth is this basic truth: the savage is good, but he’s also violent. This is why Rousseau propounded the need for contracts, between the savage and society. The savage also shows that in order to understand the need for civilization and culture mankind needs to see barbarism. One could not exist without the other.

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It’s instinctual and it’s savage