ALTHOUGH HIS FILMS ambitiously weigh the deepest spiritual and metaphysical questions, French director Bruno Dumont is refreshingly blasé about the controversy that has swirled around his latest work, Humanité, since its award-winning premiere at Cannes in 1999.
"I was surprised [that I won] prizes," he says in a conference room at the offices of WinStar Cinema, the movie's American distributor. "People argued about [the film] so much in the week following the screening." While Humanité may have been co-opted into a debate inspired by the growing French resentment toward American cultural imperialism (many Cannes observers interpreted the jury's Grand Prize award to the film as an anti-Hollywood provocation rather than a simple aesthetic judgment), Dumont himself wants no part of it. In fact, he's venturing into the belly of the beast by embarking on a film--an apocalyptic mystery called The End--that will be shot in Los Angeles.
As Dumont explains it, this move is both an experiment and a pragmatic decision. "I know that most audiences are more interested in American movies, and I don't want to stay in my own little corner," says the 42-year-old director. "I want to express myself as best I can, but I also want to make an American movie in my own style, using all the codes of American filmmaking, including real stars. I want to bring the audience into my own personal concerns and find a middle ground between European auteur cinema and American genre films. The big question is whether I can make a 'commercial art film.'"
Another question might be whether Dumont can make a film in an urban environment, since both Humanité and his 1997 debut feature Life of Jesus are distinguished by their focus on rural areas rarely depicted in French cinema, as well as their exquisite widescreen views of the landscape. The director says his choice to avoid making films about urban life has been a deliberate means of distancing himself from his colleagues. "The milieu of French cinema is based around the city, but I'm not interested in being part of that. I prefer to be on my own in territory that's not so well covered."
Humanité moves deep into that territory. While Life of Jesus was split between a realistic portrait of isolated underclass teens and the spiritual overtones invoked by its title, Dumont's latest cranks up the metaphysics and even strays into magic realism. Despite the treatment of unemployment and hate crimes in his first film, and labor unrest in his second, the director--who studied and taught philosophy before beginning to make films--denies that there's much political intent behind his work. "You can find political references in it, but they are there to lend an appearance of reality," he says. "There's a strike in Humanité, but I'm interested in the individuals involved in it, not the strike itself. I don't want to describe a social reality--just a personal one."
The final shot of Humanité, a twist that alters one's perspective on the entire film, is bound to provoke arguments and generate a multitude of interpretations. When pressed for his own take on the ending, Dumont becomes coy. "I have no secrets to reveal and nothing else to add to the film," he says. He does, however, express his satisfaction with the amount of freedom this ambiguity gives to the viewer. "A movie has to be open to different interpretations, to both positive and negative reactions," he says. "When people meet you in real life, some of them will like you, others will dislike you. It's the same with movies--especially mine."