French director Bruno Dumont on the slapstick dramedy of Ma Loute, or the art of making people laugh (or not) with incestuous, cannibalistic melodrama.
For a long while (six films in total), Bruno Dumont was notorious for his radical dramas exposing the inner travails of a bleak, often violent humanity, the kind which would typically win controversial prizes at Cannes (L’Humanité; Flandres). Although not entirely departing that register, since 2014 and his mini-series P’tit Quinquin, the former philosophy teacher has decided to explore new turf: comedy! So be prepared for a dark and subversive brand of humour, as Dumont gleefully serves us up a narrative organised around two opposing families brought together through the short-lived love of their children: grotesque upper-class bourgeoisie prone to incest, and working-class oyster farmers feeding their numerous children human flesh. Against a backdrop of the sweeping beaches of Dumont’s home region of northern France, at the height of the belle Époque in 1910, Inspecteur Machin and his sidekick Malfoy investigate the disappearance of vacationing tourists and a great, gory melodrama ensues, replete with jubilatory gags that flirt with the grotesque and flaunt political correctness, leaving a divided audience in its wake.
Before now, you weren’t known as a very fun filmmaker – your films used to be notoriously, shockingly bleak. What made you turn to comedy?
I’ve discovered the comic potential contained in drama. While I was shooting films like Camille Claudel [with Juliette Binoche] – not a fun film at all – I realised how the tragic actor is constantly flirting with comedy. A wrong turn, and the actor might slip over the line – and it’s comedy! So that potential that’s there, ready to be released, that’s something that interested me.
So somehow, for you, the comic starts where the tragic ends – it’s a fine line…
Yes, and what’s interesting is this inner friction – the connection between the genres. And if you think about it, it’s something very natural: we, as human beings, are profoundly, chemically, both comic and dramatic. The Greeks knew this dialectical tension between the comic and the tragic. I didn’t invent anything: I’m just trying to bring them together in my films. In L’humanité the comedy was there, lurking – very third-degree, maybe, but I was already flirting with it. So I’d say it was a natural development.
On paper, Ma Loute is not a funny story at all… at which stage did it start being a comedy?
You’re right. The plot is dramatic… but then on set, you can push the actors one way or another.
Take P’tit Quinquin [a four-hour comic murder mystery for Arte in 2014]. I said I’d work on a comedy; people didn’t take me seriously. “Dumont, a comedy?!” They got the script, and it wasn’t funny at all! What was funny was the actor – the way he’s all Charlie Chaplin-like.
So, it all starts on the spot, with the actors. In Ma Loute, you seriously shatter the public image of French celebrities like Binoche or Luchini… they resisted that at first, right?
They did, but I’m interested in their resistance, in that duplicity – they as the comedians, and me as the director pushing them over the top. And yes, the actors were scared – all of them. They feared they wouldn’t be able to rise up to the level of grotesque I had set up for them.
I read that you resorted to props and costumes to help your actors – a stifling corset for Bruni Tedeschi, a hunched back and an undersized pair of shoes for Luchini…
Yes, we tried to “format” them with the costumes. We twisted Luchini, got him to get out of himself with a different body and a different voice, and we propped up Valeria with a corset that would constrain the way she could talk. But they were anxious, all of them. “Isn’t it too much?” they’d ask. Actors are straight-up narcissists, so of course they were concerned! Luchini tends to act the way he really is in real life. I wasn’t interested in that – I’m interested in the metamorphosis. He got concerned about playing such a grotesque moron, and since he played it so well, when he first saw himself on screen, he panicked a little. Juliette was also very concerned in the beginning. But no matter how professional they are, once you push them off their usual acting tracks, you need to contain the new course. So that was my responsibility, to accompany my actors all the way down that crazy, unknown and extremely uncomfortable road, but not to let them stray too far. I was creating disharmony, but there needed be some harmony in that disharmony.
Were some scenes more of a challenge? What about that very un-PC scene between Luchini and Binoche – the two upper-class siblings – in which we not only learn that her daughter is the result of incest, but also that she doesn’t even know whether the dad is her father or her brother!
Yes, and typically, Juliette wanted to play it with intensity and emotion. She was going on with “Do you realise she was raped?! By her brother!” She’s pretty old school, all that Actors’ Studio blah etc. She needs that. She put all her heart into it. But I quickly shattered that approach to pieces. What’s good about Juliette is that once she knows where to go, she goes for it, 100 percent.
Why use professional actors to play the upper-class family, and non-professionals for the working-class oyster farmers?
To play the bourgeoisie I needed actors who could compose their characters, who had a full scope and range of acting skills that we could tap into. But non-professionals do act, and in a sense, one could say that they always act very well – because the characters are very close to them.
Is going too far a concern of yours?
Absolutely. I’m totally obsessed with it – that’s all the art! You need to be in that constant balancing act – one minute you need to move people and the next, right afterwards, to make them laugh… it’s a matter of tempo. What I try to do is reach out for grotesque, for excess – and for that you magnify the real, you flirt with transgression, and you’re on the verge all the time. But then if you fall out of tempo, or go too far, or in the wrong direction, you might just fall flat on your face.
You serve us a sad world divided between degenerate, inbred bourgeoisie and murderous, cannibalistic proletarians – and then a pair of absolutely useless, retarded detectives. Is this your vision of humanity?
I’m representing human nature in all its dimensions – the funny and the tragic, but also the good and the evil, and the grotesque inside us. There is no social or class dimension. The audience is supposed to identify with all these forms. We all are Ma Loute.
Who’s your favourite character?
Ma Loute, probably. If not I wouldn’t have given his name to the film. He’s a nice, normal, hetero guy who falls in love but finds himself deceived, hence his violent reaction. He’s troubled by the androgynous Billy.
Why did you decide to make Billie so gender-enigmatic?
Billie is the most modern and possibly the most interesting character in my film – are they a boy or girl? This question totally mystifies the detectives – they’re still trapped in the old patterns and can’t cope with gender ambiguity, even less with poly-gender. Some audience members are like the police guys… “No, it’s not possible.” So I was interested in renewing the love story genre by injecting something a little transgressive. Actually, initially when I wrote the script, Billie was a girl, but I thought it was boring – I’d had enough of the good old hetero love story. Finding someone androgynous and bisexual was more interesting.
Isn’t it depressing to realise that the love between Billie and Ma Loute doesn’t overcome gender and sexuality? The denouement of the love story is very normative, no?
Ma Loute was deceived. There was a lie, and he’s reacting to this lie. Also I wanted to respect the psychological colours of my character: Ma Loute is a good old hetero, a pretty primitive type. So he reacts like one.
Is your film funny? We laughed a lot, but not everyone did… How do you explain it?
Some people don’t laugh at all. The mirror is so distorted that they can’t cope. They don’t want to see Julietite Binoche like that, it pisses them off. But you can’t control an audience – they’re not all tuned the same. Some people love the film; others leave the cinema…
And there’s that transgressive side to your film – pretty vicious, in some parts.
What I like about the comic form is that it keeps you away from intellectualisation – how it’s an anti-intellectual way to say profound things. It’s also a great vector to transgress morals. How funny is it to hear that the character played by Juliette was raped by her dad and by her brother…? But it is somehow funny – you kind of want to laugh, and that might make some people feel uncomfortable.
How have people reacted to that scene so far?
Some uptight people take it very wrongly. “Monsieur, I was raped by my father… you should be ashamed!” What am I supposed to answer to that? We’re in the realm of transgression and fiction – reality is not my concern, I shouldn’t have to answer for it. I’m not tackling the issue of abused women in society! And have you read Sophocles? It rains incest! But somehow cinema attracts idiots. They blossom there… And those super uptight ones, they get all outraged by a film like Ma Loute. “It’s a shame, monsieur!” Meanwhile others split their sides with laughter. So the problem is the audience, not the film. Since my film is a little radical in its excess, it’s somehow forcing uptight people to loosen up… and some just can’t!
Why choose to tell your story as a period drama?
I was looking for extravagant times that would fit the extravagance of my film. Our times seriously lack extravagance – it would be hard to distinguish between social classes today, since the working and upper classes mostly look the same. The turn of the last century fitted my purpose – the costumes, the affectation, the manners – the poor really looked poor, the rich looked extravagantly rich. Also, to set my film in the past helped push the metaphor a step further while averting a social dimension. I didn’t want to do a film about society today, and didn’t want to be accused of having a stance about class. I’m often exposed to that “sociologising” discourse – ‘why are the poor always stupid in your films?’, etc. But they’re not ‘the poor’, they’re ‘us’!
You’ve also been accused of contempt for the simple folk…
I know, it’s such nonsense. I’ve heard it so many times: I have contempt for my actors; contempt for humanity. In P’tit Quinquin, with the detective – who’s an actor, not a real-life detective – all those same people say I’m nasty with detectives. So some people can’t separate the actor from his character, and the fiction in my film from real life. They somehow negate the acting work – they see it as a documentary. Like reality TV! But cinema is mystification. You have to acknowledge the power of fiction.
You keep filming humanity through your own countrymen – all your films are set in northern France. Why?
Yeah, I film my folks because I’m interested in humanity as a whole, and I strongly believe in the paradoxical relationship between the very close and the very far: in order to reach out to the universal, you need to concentrate on the local. For example if you want to film “the woman” – it’s impossible. You’d better film that one little brunette, as closely as possible … and maybe you’ll somehow reach the substance of “woman”. The closer you bring the camera, the closer you might approach the larger truth of what you aim to capture. In Jeanette [his latest film, a musical about Joan of Arc]; I film an eight-year-old girl, but I also film a woman, and I end up filming men and even mankind. One can’t film the human soul – you need to incarnate it first!
Ma Loute opens in Berlin cinemas on January 26. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.