'I think that all art is false," Bruno Dumont calmly proclaims, alluding to a position made famous by painter Edgar Degas. "And that through art in general -- talking about life in false ways -- can you attain truth. Because the truth can only be expressed through lies and falseness. Those who film truth directly, in your face like on television, tell us nothing."
The legend of Bruno Dumont -- philosopher, filmmaker, iconoclast -- began with 1997's boldly titled La vie de Jésus, a naturalistic film about grubby bikers in the French countryside that won the Prix Jean Vigo for best first feature. It was crystallized with L'Humanité at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where Dumont began his press kit -- more like a philosophical pamphlet -- with the sentence "Art is war." Amid a storm of controversy, the jury led by David Cronenberg rewarded Dumont's rigorous, carnal and spiritual film with three major prizes.
This decision is enough to inspire allegiance in the most jaded Canadian cinephile. As the years pass, Dumont's extraordinary film (now having a limited run at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto) will be seen as one of the most curious, love-it-or-hate-it works of the end of the century. L'Humanité is an Art film with a capital A for antagonistic, and is even more arresting arriving as it is when the most widespread form of aesthetic provocation in cinema is the teen gross-out comedy.
Beginning with a shot of an 11-year-old murdered and raped girl with her legs splayed open that recalls Duchamp, L'Humanité features long-held, painterly widescreen images in the style of Flemish landscape painting with an ambience recalling the films of Bresson or Pasolini. Dumont uses the familiar French genre of the policier as a means to deal with the metaphysical big subjects -- good, evil, the nature of being.
The 43-year-old philosophy professor turned director carries the reputation of the arrogant artist as provocateur, but is relatively soft-spoken in person. (Our interview turned brusque when I had the gumption to inquire about Dumont's religion.) When asked how he reacted to the hooting at Cannes, Dumont pauses for a long moment. And then he says, speaking carefully: "I was extremely happy in that the film and its actors were being recognized. At the same time, I felt the film was abused by certain parts of the press. I did find that there were many idiotic things said. I prefer someone who categorically dislikes the film, and explains his point of view. That's his freedom to do so, rather than insulting the actors."
The two award-winning actors are as much a cause of the controversy as Dumont's philosophies. Dumont spent 10 months casting the film, and found non-professionals, Emmanuel Schotte and Séverine Caneele, for the defective detective and the gangly girl he longs for. Dumont says Cannes jury foreman Cronenberg told him "he has seen something that touched him that he had never seen before.
"That's the reason he decided to reward the actors, it's as simple as that."
As the detective Pharaon de Winter, Schotte's bug-eyed, Gumpian performance -- micromanaged by Dumont's specific physical directions -- leaves many mystified. "I saw many actors when I did the screen tests. I saw the strength [Schotte]had in his voice and in his look. I knew I had found what I was looking for: humanity incarnate, or just about."
But what many viewers and critics may find disarming is how Pharaon's off-putting behaviour magnifies our own personal follies. "He is too human, in the Nietzschean way," Dumont explains. "He brings out everything that is inside of us. This functions like a magnifying glass for the spectators. I think searching for the killer is looking for oneself. I am convinced of that. I think the killer is within us."
Despite elements of naturalism in L'Humanité, like an elongated sense of time and the grimy surrounding of Bailleul, Dumont injects surrealistic touches of what he terms "fantastical realism." Pharaon's langorous investigation for the killer includes primal screams at passing trains, sniffing suspects and odd encounters with pigs.
"We are not in reality," Dumont explains. "In the performances of the actors, in their ways of speaking, everything is false. There is a strong appearance of reality because of the actors, because of the locations where I shoot, but it's all an appearance. That's why I search for simple, basic stories, like the policier, things that are very real, but I ultimately dissect them."
Where does a man who has filmed humanity turn next?
Are you sitting down?
Dumont's followup, rumoured to bear the supremely brash title of The End, will be another detective story, but this time shot and set in Los Angeles with big American stars. It will deal with all the mythologies that surround American filmmaking. "It's a world which has a strong hold and a great influence on the rest of the world, and as a filmmaker, I cannot sit back and watch this happen without wanting to impose my own view."
When I ask Dumont how he plans to direct this film without speaking English, his terse response does not surprise. "I will learn," he says.
L'Humanité has a limited Toronto run at Cinematheque Ontario, screening tomorrow at 3 p.m., Wednesday at 8:15 p.m., Friday at 8:15 p.m. and Saturday at 8:15 p.m. For information call 416-968-FILM or visit the Web site at .