For most of La vie de Jésus Bruno Dumont has his audience riding pinion with a gang of bored young motorcyclists. They roam aimlessly around a widescreen rendered, rural northeastern France, waiting for their lives to happen, or for someone to merely notice they are there. However, a potentially racist act of violence towards the end brings about a reckoning that in its understated way fully justifies the biblical overtones of the title, and wards off those who’d paint the director as a pedlar in calculated sensationalism.
The climax of Dumont’s debut feature sees the reckless, motorcycle obsessed Freddy (David Douche) alone in a northern French field. Despite having attacked and ‘accidentally’ killed the young immigrant Kader (Kader Chaatouf), who was making advances upon his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), Freddy is somehow able to run out of a police interview. The ineptitude of the justice system is a common trope in Dumont’s work, but in this wordless closing sequence, a sense of a cosmic balancing of the scales is inferred.
Freddy returns to his mother’s cafe at the break of dawn and sneaks off with his motorcycle. Hunched over in the thick vegetation of the field, he flies into a silent rage, trying to press himself down into the ground. Dumont, working in and around his hometown of Bailleul, Nord, earlier united Freddy and the natural landscape in an awkward yet primal sexual encounter with Marie. Thus the earth previously offered succour and solace, but now it reveals itself to be unyielding and inhospitable.
All of his simian swagger and puffed-up machismo gone, a high-angled shot frames Freddy as if in a manger made of grass. His rigid frame and narrow pigeon chest evoke an extreme vulnerability that reminds the viewer that he is still very much a child. Staring, masochistically, into the sun, Freddy appears awed by its radiance. Then a cloud rolls across the sky and the shot is thrust into shadow. An ant runs off of Freddy’s arm. Followed by the subtle incongruities of those cracked and soiled hands clasped together in close-up – dried dirt caked around the nails. Pulling himself upright as the sun breaks forth once more, Freddy’s face becomes the screen. Upon it confusion, fear, guilt and a numbed self-possession are minutely etched – Dumont is the modern master of capturing the tiniest facial detail. Freddy’s final look of resignation falls upon a fallow field. All too clearly illustrating that this is his prison and his punishment.