La vie de Jésus
With his stunning debut feature, the risk-taking auteur Bruno Dumont immediately established his reputation as both a spiritual heir to Robert Bresson and an uncompromising iconoclast on the cutting edge of French cinema. Blending unflinching realism with moments of startling, light-filled beauty, La vie de Jésus finds unexpected philosophical richness in the quotidian, small-town existence of Freddy (nonprofessional David Douche in a revelatory, one-off performance), an aimless young man with epilepsy who, in his childlike simplicity, embodies both great tenderness and terrifying brutality. Leaving the film’s cryptic title tantalizingly open to interpretation, Dumont dares viewers to see the divine in a seemingly dead-end world.
Bruno Dumont enters The Criterion Collection with his debut feature, La vie de Jésus. The film has received a new 4K restoration (scanned from the 35mm original camera negative) and it’s presented here on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Both this film and—to a certain degree—its companion release L’humanité offer decent but ultimately underwhelming presentations. Some of this just comes down to the drearier look of each film (the colour schemes to both are limited and they look a little washed), which is fine and I’m sure intentional, but the final digital presentation comes up short as well: neither looks all that filmic. Yes, the image for La vie de Jésus is still fairly sharp, but fine-object details never pop and there can be a fairly soft look to things overall, particularly in exterior shots. Film grain is present but barely registers, and I found it a bit noisy at times. This all lends it a more digital look.
The source is in good shape, though, with only a handful of tiny marks popping up here and there along with some noticeable pulsing and flickering. The cleanup effort has otherwise been thorough, so the image doesn’t disappoint in this regard. But again, it has a less natural, more processed look. Full disclosure: I did just get a new television (a 65” LG 4K OLED television) and I worried that maybe I missed a configuration while calibrating things and went through again to make sure I got everything. I also made the mistake of having this be the first Blu-ray I threw in rather than one I was already familiar with. To double check I did pop on other discs that I’ve been pleased with and these titles still looked great. I then popped in Criterion’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and BFI’s People on Sunday, and their digital presentations looked as exceptional as I would have hoped (especially impressive for People on Sunday considering the condition of the materials). Coming back to this title (and L’humanité) it just teeters a bit to being more video-like in its presentation. Admittedly some or most of this may be related to the elements or how it was shot but it’s still missing that texture. It’s fine in the end, but that’s really all I can say about it.
The film comes with a lossless 2.0 PCM stereo track. Everything is sharp with voices sounding clear, and the bike engines that pop up consistently throughout all sound lifelike, with a few louder moments thrown in for good measure. There are also no signs of severe damage. It doesn’t strive for much but it’s still a perfectly fine stereo track.
Criterion’s special edition sports quite a bit of material, with the film’s director pretty much front-and-center. First up is a new 16-minute interview with Bruno Dumont recorded exclusively for this edition, with the director explaining how he merged his education in philosophy and his background in making industrial films into making feature films. He then moves on to talk about the film’s characters, individuals that he uses to “access the ideal” of what they represent, and spends some time talking about the film’s main character, Freddy, who he likens to the Yellow Vest protestors and the far-right in France in a not-so flattering way (and he has a lot to say about them in his interview found on L’humanité). The complicated characters, who are neither good nor evil (they all have their good points and bad points, though some more than others on either end of the scale), then leads Dumont to reflect a bit on the state of filmmaking and the types of movies made, which he feels conditions audiences to expect a film to clearly explain things. I’m not familiar with Dumont as a person, so I wasn’t sure what I’d get, but he ends up coming off very genuine and forthcoming, willingly talking about his debut film, warts and all, and explaining his intentions. I rather enjoyed it.
Dumont shows up again in two excerpts from separate episodes of a French television program called Le cercle de minuit, running 26-minutes together and both filmed in 1997 just after the film’s release. The first excerpt presents Dumont and other guests talking about his film, its goal to “awaken” its audience, before focusing on the film’s presentation of racism (which Dumont also touches on in detail in the previous interview on this disc, mentioning the influence of Shoah), including a great breakdown on how the film subtly starts things off before events turn violent. The second excerpt yet again features Dumont, though this time he is with co-stars Marjorie Cottreel (Marie) and Kader Chaatouf (Kader). Cottreel gets to talk most of the allotted time, talking about how it was to act in her first film, the shock at seeing the finished product (nothing like what she expected), and then answers the rather asinine question about why a stand-in was used for the more graphic sex scenes. Chaatouf chimes in, expressing his excitement at being in a film, and Michel Ciment also briefly appears to praise the film. The host can be a little ridiculous at times with her questions (gee, I can’t imagine why a non-actor might feel uncomfortable about doing a graphic sex scene in her first film) but all of the participants have a lot of insightful and engaging things to say in regard to the film. (Dumont also mentions a short film he did prior to La vie de Jésus but he obviously doesn’t care too much for it and pretty much calls making it a miserable learning experience.)
Dumont then shows up yet again in a 2014 interview with critic Philippe Rouyer. This one ends up not being entirely specific to the film with Dumont talking about first getting into film and his years working on industrial filmmaking. This experience is what not only taught him the technical aspects of the craft but exposed him to working with non-actors. On the film he then covers much of the same ground that was covered in the other interviews here in relation to themes and character (and working with his “actors”), but he does go into more detail about its development, influences, and the overall production. Dumont again comes off pretty loose and open, and is very forthcoming with his answers to Rouyer’s questions. It runs about 39-minutes.
The disc then closes with the film’s French trailer, and the included insert features an essay Nicholas Elliott, who questions critics of the time comparing the film to Bresson.
I would have appreciated more scholarly material but as it is I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying Dumont’s contributions.
I was ultimately disappointed with the presentation, which I found had a more digital, home video look. It’s fine but could be so much better. At the very least I did enjoy Dumont’s contributions