7 December 2021

Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jésus | The Life of Jesus (1997)

Bruno Dumont's first feature, La Vie de Jésus, is inspired by Ernest Renan's first edition of La Vie de Jésus (1863), which caused a scandal in the Catholic community as it treated Christ as a human being, without the divinity. This film deals with humanity in the then present day, 1997, and it concerns the social problems of the day. It is set in the north-east which has come to be seen as Dumont's territory, although this is not set on the Côte d'Opale but in Bailleul where Dumont was born, a town more than thirty miles south-east of Dunkerque.

Freddy (David Douche) is a young and unemployed epileptic and a kind of leader of a gang of five which spends most of the time riding around the town and surrounding countryside on mopeds. He lives with his mother Yvette (Geneviève Cottreel), who runs the Au Petit Casino café, and he has an intense loving and sexual relationship with supermarket cashier Marie (Marjorie Cottreel): one scene in a field depicts obviously unsimulated sex.

Improbably, the gang also play in an (old-fashioned type brass) band, and Freddy is very fond of his caged pet chaffinch: in another weird scene, there's a singing contest with people's pet birds in cages in the street, to judge which chirps the loudest.

But there's a dark underbelly of racism in the town, and a north African family is forced to leave Yvette's café due to comments, one coming from Freddy being bougnoules, the closest French equivalent to 'nigger', although it's usually applied specifically to North Africans: as the family make a hasty exit, a trumpeter plays a few notes of  La Marseillaise, just to let them know that they're in the 'wrong' country.

Young Kader (Kader Chaatouf) is one of them, and he and Marie have both taken a liking to each other, although Marie warns him off as it would be anathema to the gang to see them with each other, although at one point Marie takes the persistent Kader's hand and puts it inside her underpants, angrily saying: 'C'est ça que tu veux, euh, c'est ça ?' ('Is this what you want, huh, is this it ?'), to which Kader immediately redraws his hand and shouts 'T'es malade ou quoi ?' ('You crazy or what ?'), and he walks away. Later, she apologises and holds herself to him in a friendly manner.

But it's too late for everyone now anyway. Marie leaves Freddy after the gang are involved in the sexual abuse of another girl. And they hound down Kader, forcing him off the road and Freddy repeatedly kicks him in his head. Hauled into the cop shop, Freddy learns that Kadar has died in hospital: he escapes, takes off on his moped without a shirt or any belongings and, well, the end.

For a first feature, this is a magnificent performance by Dumont, especially as the cast are non-actors.

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