Six weeks after his latest film, "Camille Claudel 1915," received a theatrical release in the U.S., and just a few days after John Waters listed that and another of his films ("Hors Satan") on his 2013 Top 10 list for Artforum, Bruno Dumont was given the royal treatment at the 13th annual Marrakech Film Festival, an opulent feast of cinema presided over by none other than His Royal Highness Prince Moulay Rachid. On Saturday night, Dumont walked the red carpet before introducing and honoring his collaborator on "Camille Claudel," Juliette Binoche, as part of the festival's nightly "Tributes" series (the previous night's recipient was Sharon Stone); then on Sunday afternoon he sat down for a master class at the Palais des Congress.
Though Waters dubbed Dumont "the ultimate master of cinematic misery," in his 90-minute conversation with Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Philippe Tessé, the blue-eyed brooder was animated and forthcoming, and focused less on the Belgian director's mournful worldview than on the tools of filmmaking—the supremacy of editing, the differing ways of directing professional and non-actors, and being selective and sparing about presenting beauty to the viewer. Below are highlights from Dumont's master class.
On evolving as a filmmaker.
I don't watch my movies. When I do [encounter them] I see that they are not well done. Because I have changed. So I have the desire to fix what was wrong in them in other projects—I'm future oriented. This is what mobilizes my career. I don't edit the same way that I did before. My shots were longer on "Humanité"—since then my internal pace has changed.
On shifting his emphasis from performance to shot making and editing.
In my first movies I considered the actors my core. Then I realized that the camera wasn't in the right place. And that it's the camera that matters most. For "Camille Claudel," the camera was the dominant factor. You have to foster a dialogue between camera and actor. I need to put the camera in the right place and have the actors come to it, so that the audience can see them. It's not normal [for the actors to play to the camera] but they just have to do it. Ultimately, the actor is nothing but a component in the mis en scene. They're essential, but everything is essential. Cinema may come from the theater, but we don't have to focus on what the actors say [the same way we do in the theater]. We rather want the audience to read their faces. The moment they talk, it's like telling rather than showing.
What's interesting to me now is the editing, to link shots. The role of cinema is to narrativize time that is continuous. To break the natural continuity I can always create something better. And introducing something incongruous I can always break the cliché. I'm less scared now. Even poor shots are important—within the catastrophe [of a poor shot] you can still find something. It obliges me to edit, to find a solution, to recuperate what doesn't work. Since I write the screenplays, I can rewrite the scene when needed and make it work though editing.
On utilizing different strategies for working with actors an non-actors, and the benefits of withholding the dialogue and details of the script from them.
You have to talk to the actor, but how he should the scene I will never tell him. I see how he walks and I let him walk that way. It's so interesting to have an actor who is not playing. I don't want actors to know anything. The more they are lost, the better they play. For working with non-professional actors, you have to have this particular desire to work with people who are reluctant to play in a movie. I like this relationship. I'm like a recruiter, an employment agency giving someone employment. Where the motivation [of their participation] is financial. I would put them in the right situations and then use their own words. It's forbidden in their contracts for technicians to talk about scenes—they're banned from doing so. You have to prepare the general framework of the story, but that's it, because if actors are made privy to scripted words they are going to use them. The performers might be afraid of these situations, but it also makes them sensitive, and better able to create a sensitive character. Emotions come from the fear. I need some restrictions if I'm going to create something new.
I didn't give Juliette Binoche a screenplay. She accepted the method. She accepted that she would have to stand before the camera without makeup. She was very courageous and bold. And she wasn't scared of a long take. Even when she had memory problems, forgetting lines, I didn't want to stop her—instead I let her remember on camera. An actor wants to be perfect, but these up and down movements help to build the character. She's a hard worker, but from time to time we needed her not to work. With non-actors, it might need to be the other way around. Matching character and actor is what a good director does.
On having strong aesthetics on a limited budget, and letting a film be ordinary in order to make it extraordinary.
Thirty-five millimeter ‘scope gives you a powerful impact. The more limited the subject, the more the shot has power. These landscapes are stronger even if there's nothing special about them. The way you shoot them can be so strong, so dense, that it's going to create a new space. I can have limited events but it works out. I can still impress the viewer. The viewer knows what a farm is about. It's a universal image that references back. You need to have very few sounds, so that you'll actually hear a bird. And every step that characters take. It shouldn't be beautiful all of the time. You need to play with the audience. What matters is the memory you will keep after the movie is over. If you want it to be extraordinary you need to be ordinary. Let the audience be bored. Then hit them with something that makes them think. I make low budget movies of $1-2 million. This economy prevents me from having expensive things—my aesthetic comes from my budget. But even with a low budget you can have aesthetics. Make a movie with the means you have.
Perceptions are controlled by the viewer. And I don't want to have control over the viewer. You can't create a movie as you think about it. And what's in the scene is not what's being seen. A shot always means something other than what it is. All are vehicles. A landscape is just a vehicle. The viewer might think different things, and I'm not going to intervene.