Director Bruno Dumont spoke passionately to a huge audience of fans and cinema students here in Marrakesh, in a two hour masterclass. Very clear and sure in his ideas, he emphasized that making good films means breaking clichés, prioritizing the image over the actor, and filming material details to arrive at transcendent meaning. He began by speaking about how his approach to filmmaking has changed since his early films, such as Life of Jesus and Twentynine Palms, up until his most recent film, with Juliette Binoche, Camille Claudel 1915 (2013).
How do you feel about your past films?
I don't watch my own past films: when I watch them, I find they don't work very well, because I have changed. If I continue to make films, in fact, it is because I always want to repair my films. My inner rhythm has changed; I have changed. I have changed my way to film.
What has changed?
In my first films, I felt the actor is the heart of everything, that technique is subordinate to the actor. I always worried that my camera was not in the right place. But now I think it is not so important if the actor plays well, but rather than the camera is used well. For example, if Juliette Binoche turns her head, it might be fantastic, but I now say, please turn to your head to the camera. I put the camera in the right place and ask the actor to come to it. The camera dominates, not the actor.. This way, the spectator will feel closer, which is what is most important. The heart of everything is the mise-en-scene.
Another change: I cut more. I fabricate time. I know that through cuts, something will happen. Even a catastrophic shot has something good about it, as it obliges me to cut. There are ellipses in my film, because I have cut. Now I think it is just too bad if the actor is not able to act. I accept what happens. I never tell the actor how to do something. What is important is the montage and the rhythm: more or less fast.
Can you explain why you suddenly have a shot of workmen in your film "Hadewijch" which takes place in a convent?
The spectator knows what a convent is like. It is important to bring a new element that the spectator does not know already to aerate the image. It's hard to have someone praying without falling into cliché. The workers in the convent serve to break the cliché. The spectator must be astonished. If they already feel they have seen something, they are not ready to watch. One must fight against clichés. The spectator is already chock-full of clichés before he or she even gets to the screening. For example, shots in Paris are not very interesting; the things that are difficult to find are anonymous images. Cinema means framing something new.
How do you create meaning in your films?
Cinema is made to film material: the body. By filming the material, the mechanical, the worker, we arrive at the spiritual. A shot always signifies something else; it is a means to get somewhere else. It is a way to get the spectator to voyage somewhere else. You must go low to go high. I am not metaphysical. I work with material reality. I film the physical; it is up to the spectator to create the feeling. I can't intervene.
How do you use landscape?
Landscape is a rhetorical and poetic way to represent what is invisible to the eye. I can't get into Camille's mind. But cinema can penetrate the spirit, through shots of landscape. We are inside Camille and Paul as they walk up the mountain; we are in the interior space of the person. No landscape in film is "real'! It is all metaphor. All of it!
How do you use sound and music?
There is no real music in my films: the music is created by the sounds. I use direct sound. The spoon hitting a cup creates rhythm; the footsteps create a rhythm. I also show--in Camille Claudel--how Camille is disturbed by the sounds to make the situation closer to the spectator.
How do you direct your actors?
I don't give them text. If they recite text, it is horrible. I put them in an action that normally should lead to the dialogue I expect. I tell them, for example: "Get angry in the kitchen, in front of the television set. Just express what you wish!" I don't care about the exact dialogue. We are all humans. In the same situation, we will necessarily say similar things. I put them in a situation that will give birth to the text I want.
The actor already comes with emotions to the scene: fear, the fear of being in front of the camera. It is this fear that spurs the emotion of the scene. I too am afraid; I don't know exactly what I am searching for. On the set, we are all participating in this fear together.
How do you direct yourself?
I prohibit myself from doing certain things, like point-counterpoint shots (champ contre champ), which are so dreadfully boring, even though they are easy to use for dialogue scenes. I must neutralize myself, disappear, so the spectator can find their own meaning.
How do you choose your actors?
I must choose the right actor for the character. For example, for Camille Claudel's brother "Paul" in my latest film, I picked someone who is a Normalean [i.e. an academic intellectual] , so when he speaks about saints and scriptures, we believe in his words. The actor has his body. He is his body.
Are you ever surprised by your own films?
I like to be astonished by the work of the actor when I see the rush. For example, I found myself loving the character Paul more because of what the actor gave to this character. But do I get moved from watching my own films? No. It's dead for me. I have gone over every shot too many times. What I show is my memory, not my present. But I would like the spectator to feel what I did the first time I saw it.
Can you comment on our appreciation of cinema?
Cinema builds memories; great films continue to exist in the spectator's mind. We are naturally capable of and prone to nostalgia. A spectator will reconstruct a film he or she has seen, years later, and may even change their original opinion. One critic, for example, once gave the finger to one of my films; later he wrote me to apologize.