First things first. This ain't your father's Life of Jesus. In fact, it's no life of Jesus at all, not even an allegorical one. Which is just as well for the health of first-time writer/director Bruno Dumont, given the graphic sex -- and that's putting it mildly -- he's put on display here.
Which is not to say that his film isn't ultimately religious, and even Christian. The Life of Jesus is informed by the same peculiarly French Catholicism that in the first half of this century nourished Robert Bresson (an obvious influence for Dumont) and writers George Bernanos and François Mauriac. The film in fact feels like an updating of Bresson, an applying of his contemplative, unsentimental, even cruel style to the millennium's end, with Christianity no longer the cultural or intellectual force it was even 50 years ago. That is, the Christianity captured here hangs on at a subintellectual level, as a force that rises from nature at the last minute, after it had withered and died as an organizing principle for life.
In other words, if Freddy (David Douche), the main character, is supposed to be Jesus, then Christ has indeed returned in time for the millennial festivities, but as an epileptic, nearly speechless brute. A brute with a soul, yes, but a soul that he carries around painfully, as if it were a toothache. Freddy is, in fact, one of the afflicted types that the Biblical Jesus spent his public years healing and saving.
Freddy and his gang of slacker friends -- Quinquin, Michou and Robert -- live in a bleak and horrible little Flemish town, and they are absolutely desperate for something to do. If you wished you'd been born someplace cool -- someplace like France -- forget it. According to this film, the Last Picture Show is The Last Picture Show. That is, village life is idiotic and soul-destroying, even if served with escargots.
We see that destruction clearly in Freddy's pained face. Douche, the nonprofessional actor Dumont cast as his lead (the actors are kids off the local unemployment rolls) looks like a peasant lost in time. He could have played Depardieu's kid brother in The Return of Martin Guerre and fit right in.
He lives for these things: racing around the countryside with his pals on small, buzzing motorcycles; animal sex with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), his girlfriend; and his new finch, which is supposed to start singing come spring. Life here is so boring that patrons in a bar owned by his mother (Genevieve Cottreel, Marjorie's real-life mother) ask Freddy to bring out his caged, silent finch, just so they can look at it and perhaps look forward to the spring.
It's hard to say which Freddy finds more satisfying, the sex or the cycling. Neither eases his mind for very long. His unhappiness and his epilepsy are always close at hand, even though he genuinely loves Marie and has moments of aching postcoital tenderness with her. A moment after the couple's most strenuous bout, which includes a genuinely shocking close-up of penetration, the young couple is at their most heartbreaking, she with her blond head resting on his shoulder, looking not so much sated as blissful, and Freddy himself wearing a rare, peaceful smile.
I wondered if Freddy's bored-stiff friends wouldn't at some point turn on Marie. But the boys respect suffering, such as Freddy's with his epilepsy, too much to betray him. The way they are affected by pain and death does in fact give them a certain amount of dignity. The brother of one boy is in the hospital, dying of AIDS. Their nearly mute visit to take one last look at his pain-wracked face is the most powerful in the film. When one boy notices a hospital poster depicting Lazarus waking from the grave and tries to formulate a positive thought for the occasion, Freddy simply tells him to "shut up."
The gang does cruelly turn on another local girl, an unfortunate known to them simply as "fatso." They grope and humiliate her during the marching band practice that seems the highlight of local social life. When Marie learns that Freddy was in on the "joke," as the boys see it, she dumps him without further ado, despite the fact that she loves him on a cellular level.
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Without Marie, Freddy spins out of control and takes his friends with him. Their racist hatred of a local Arab boy, Kader (Kader Chaatouf), has percolated throughout the film, most powerfully in a scene set in the bar belonging to Freddy's mother. The Arab family is driven out to the accompaniment of the "Marseilles." Halfway through the film, Kader rather bravely declares his affections to Marie, who doesn't quite brush him off. Once she's broken with Freddy, she opens the door to Kader. Freddy finds out, with predictably bloody results.
The Life of Jesus stakes its claim to being a Christian film (it's characterized as such by Dumont) in the aftermath of Freddy's criminal violence. His violence has caused him to die as a human person (the Arab dies more literally), but Freddy's remorse causes that seed of a soul we've sensed in him to ripen and burst. In an extraordinary image, Freddy lies down in a field of tall, billowing grass. The indentation he makes there clearly forms a grave. Then something bursts through the clouds overhead. He's been studying them so desperately that the intensity of his gaze must have summoned, or even created, the ray of light -- or whatever it is -- that makes him cry out in pain and perhaps salvation.
The film is a bit portentous, and some passages about the boys' boredom translate into boredom for the viewer as well. For that matter, the story line is awfully familiar. Kader's death feels more predictable than tragically inevitable. But Dumont has a way of getting inside his inarticulate characters and lighting them from within. He finds their humanity even as they're throwing it away.
The Life of Jesus.
Directed by Bruno Dumont. With David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf and Genevieve Cottreel. Unrated. Playing January 30 and 31 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, (713)639-7515.