An unflinching portrait of thwarted emotions and small-town tedium, The Life of Jesus (La Vie de Jésus) is a luminous and disconcerting feature debut from philosophy teacher turned director Bruno Dumont.
There are some beautiful, indelible moments in The Life of Jesus, which follows around our mopey anti-hero Freddy (David Douche). We see him gently lay his head on wallflower girlfriend Marie’s shoulder (Marjorie Cottreel), after they have animalistic sex. Marie quietly smiles at him, triggering Dumont to pan out of the pair’s moment of intimacy and look at the bigger picture and uncultivated landscape the pair find themselves prisoners of.
Such tender moments are like respites in the storm at the centre of this very unsettling film. Twenty year old Freddy and his unemployed roustabout pals are the poster boys for the disenchanted youth. They have no ambition and no prospects, and there doesn’t appear to be a role model of any description for several hundred miles in any direction. Freddy spends his schedule-free days trolling around the Northern French town of Bailleul on the back of noisy motor scooters. Going from one indeterminable destination to the next, he mixes the dreary days with even drearier, expedient sex with Marie, which Dumont stages in the most raw and unerotic ways imaginable. But small-term excitement strikes the players when Kader (Kader Chaatouf), a handsome young Arab, starts pursuing Marie, she warns him that her boyfriend and his thuggish mates will make trouble for him. Unable to quash his advances, the local boys set themselves on a hunt for Kader. It gives them a purpose to cause havoc on the streets, albeit a hateful and malicious one.
The indelibly slow pace and minimal plot underscore the emptiness in the lives of Dumont’s characters, though the unrelenting bleakness of the story and detestation to virtually everyone on screen will leave audiences uneasy and perhaps even angry; never presented with a character we can feel an emotional attachment with, or benevolence like the wryly sardonic film title would suggest. Freddie walks around physically and emotionally wounded throughout but we merely see his pain instead of feeling it. Such a lack of emotional development could be excused if this character wasn’t so insipid.
Filmed in the province where he grew up, Dumont chose to cast local non-professional actors. This proves to be The Life of Jesus’ downfall, as none of the actors present are able to be compelling. Freddy’s pals seem as threatening as the rest of the humble village folk, objectified desire symbol Marjorie Cottreel looks genuinely uncomfortable and exploited. Worst of all, with his inexpressive face and wooden movement, Douche perfectly captures the film’s sense of ennui, but he remains a distant figure throughout; leading to the film’s implosive ending, which is laughable rather than heart wrenching.
Sitting uncomfortably between the meditative direction of Robert Bresson and the lower class stoicism of Belgian neighbours The Dardenne Brothers, Dumont suggests that he does have the natural eye for pure cinema. This is not that film. The Life of Jesus certainly manages to deliver an uncompromising view of bored youth, but the experience is wholly depressing, and only the most patient art-house audiences will appreciate the Dumont’s occasional cinematic grace which transcends the grim proceedings.
The Life of Jesus is available everywhere. Get on it.