Abstract While Bruno Dumont’s status as auteur cannot be denied, his work has generated intense polemic, even denunciation. One reason for this is the general perception that his actors do not correspond to the image of a film star. Recruited on location in French Flanders, they have included factory- or farm-workers, the chronically unemployed, and disabled people. Their bodies mirror their lives: worn, scarred, or deformed. Dumont’s choice of actors radically violates the sacrosanct codes of representation for film actors, which dictate an ideal beauty, an ideal often associated moreover with ideas such as purity, intelligence, or spiritual elevation. This association implicitly rejects the material, or un-ideal, body as impure, ugly, or evil. This article examines Dumont’s commercially risky, iconoclastic choice of actors and his insistence on the earthly body, rather than the immaterial spirit, as ‘the cause of everything’ in light of Georges Bataille’s concept of ‘bas matérialisme’ and its essential relation to the sacred. Flouting conventional codes of beauty, Dumont’s cinema locates the sacred, I argue, in the basse matière literally em-bodied by its actors and their natural habitats. Il est temps d’abandonner le monde des civilisés et sa lumière. — Georges Bataille1 Le cinéma est antérieur à l’esprit, c’est-à-dire qu’il retourne dans les corps, dans les sensibilités, dans les paysages. […] Je ne cherche pas la clarté, la clarté rationnelle. — Bruno Dumont2As early as 1929, in Documents, an art magazine described as ‘agressivement réaliste’,3 Georges Bataille makes an acerbic and prescient observation about the star-driven Hollywood cinema. In a world bankrupt of meaning and sacred values, Hollywood is ‘le nombril de la Terre’, a mock temple whose beautiful priestesses devote themselves to helping the crowd forget the misery of its condition.4 Nowhere else would one encounter, for instance, ‘des femmes assez dénaturées pour paraître impossibles d’une façon aussi criante’.5 Bataille objects in essence to Hollywood’s turning reality into tinsel to amuse and, more insidiously, to delude the spectator. While, in France, André Bazin’s theory of staunch realism and Robert Bresson’s austere cinematography, for example, have exemplified a cinema resistant to such a star-driven or denatured cinema, Bruno Dumont, among contemporary filmmakers, pushes the resistance still further by his peculiar choice, above all, of actors and settings that may repulse, rather than attract, the potential spectator. Although his films have won Grands Prix du Jury at Cannes, these consecrations did not occur without occasioning polemic and even denunciation. Many of Dumont’s films are set in his native town, Bailleul, in French Flanders, and the actors are often recruited from local factory- or farm-workers, the chronically unemployed, and disabled people. Their bodies carry the imprint of their lives: worn, scarred, or deformed. And they seem to have sprouted out of the very landscape they inhabit — bleak, mute, muddy, and devoid of bourgeois charm or comfort. Dumont’s choice of actors then radically violates the dominant codes of representation of film actors, who are usually chosen above all for their photogenic beauty.6 But through this commercially risky and iconoclastic choice, Dumont has unveiled a universe rarely seen before on the screen: simultaneously banal and uncanny, otherworldly and horrifying. Besides the wild landscapes of Flanders, his cinema exposes what may be construed as indecent or taboo, such as epileptic seizures, extreme close-ups of genitals and sex, or psychiatric patients. While a signature trait of Dumont’s cinema — the extreme depiction of sex and violence — has generated much critical study in the wake of James Quandt’s article castigating what he dubbed the ‘New French Extremity’,7 relatively few studies have treated the topic of the sacred in relation to his cinema, even though Dumont himself has frequently addressed it. Those studies that do usually interpret the sacred in terms of the immaterial or Christian sacred.8 In what follows I argue that Dumont’s iconoclastic — or ‘deviant’, to borrow Adorno’s term9 — choice of actors and settings is driven by his singular conception of the sacred as materialist and non-religious. His ideas in this area often seem ambiguous, opaque, even contradictory, as evidenced by a statement such as: ‘Moi j’ai envie d’un sacré humaniste, d’une vie spirituelle, d’une transcendance, sans Dieu et sans Église’.10 They become clearer, however, when examined alongside Bataille’s concept of ‘bas matérialisme’ and its essential relation to the sacred. Flouting conventional cinematic practice, Dumont’s cinema locates the sacred, as I hope to show, in the basse matière, which is literally em-bodied by Dumont’s actors and their natural habitats. For the purposes of this article, my discussion will be limited to elements of the five films that are most illustrative of this theme: La Vie de Jésus (1997), L’humanité (1999), Flandres (2006), Hadewijch (2009), and finally Camille Claudel 1915 (2013). With rare exceptions, the action in Dumont’s cinema unfolds outdoors, as opposed to the interior of the characters’ abodes. Even the sex act, that most intimate of human activities, occurs mostly in open nature. The flat, grim landscapes of Flanders that feature in many of Dumont’s films, beginning with La Vie de Jésus, belie the cliché of the bucolic usually associated with the French provinces. Even when the setting changes, in Camille Claudel 1915, to the hills of Provence, one of the most famously photogenic parts of the world, it is no less bleak. The windswept, arid, rocky landscapes suggest desolation more than charm. And, excepting Camille Claudel, played by Juliette Binoche, the characters, who are played by psychiatric patients, seem quarried right out of the landscape, as if their demented minds and twisted bodies mirror its gnarled branches and parched rocks.11 Within Dumont’s landscapes, there is a frequently recurring motif — soil and mud — often shot in close-up, and often with characters embedded in it. L’humanité opens, for instance, with a notorious scene in which we see Pharaon de Winter, dwarfed by the immense landscape, run from one side of the frame to the other.12 We hear his heavy breathing, laboured steps, and the incessant whistling of the wind. The camera then shifts abruptly to a series of close-ups of his feet sinking into the mud as he staggers through it, and then pulls back to show him falling and belly-flopping into it. For a few minutes he remains on the ground, before we see his face, in extreme close-up, half buried in the mud, and we follow his dazed gaze towards the widescreen landscape.13 What forces our attention in this opening, besides the amplified sounds of Pharaon’s respiration and lurching movements, is his seemingly inordinate intimacy with, or proximity to, the mud, as if he is an organic, inseparable part of it. Flandres opens similarly, with the distant sounds of farm animals, and a medium shot of a sprawling farmhouse set in muddy ground. The shots then alternate rapidly between close-ups of objects, such as the visage of the taciturn, bulky Demester or his toiled hands, and long shots of the landscape of fields, as seen by him, and into which he is seen eventually to disappear. Walking into the scene next is Barb, with whom Demester has sex after barely exchanging two words with her, right there in the field. This opening sequence is followed by further extreme close-ups of soil churned by his tractor. Mud, sex in the field, rare or non-existent human speech as if the characters have been reduced to mutism by the prevailing sounds of nature, such as wind, animals, human respiration — all these elements have the stamp of Dumont’s cinema. Central to this intensely telluric cinema are the actors. Dumont’s choice of actors has given rise to scandal, such as when a Cannes Jury awarded Best Actor and Best Actress awards to Emmanuel Schotté, playing the role of Pharaon, and Séverine Caneele, playing Domino, his love interest. Not only were they not professional actors, but perhaps they had also committed a délit de faciès by not looking like film stars.14 Dumont has stated that ‘actors, like landscapes, come ready-made. They must already be in harmony and of the same essence to produce the huge shockwave that constitutes a film’.15 By choosing actors (and characters) who are ‘of the same essence’ as landscapes, which connote something outside the artifice of interior decor or the veneer of civilization, Dumont seems to strive to let their — and implicitly the spectator’s — earthly, as opposed to divine, origin manifest itself phenomenologically. Maryline Alligier observes that Dumont’s films portray ‘un être […] originaire’ or ‘premier’, which echoes Dumont’s own express desire to ‘aller au commencement, à la nature, au mythe, à ce genre de représentation, justement pour aller chercher le spectateur dans son fond’.16 This would explain, among other things, what many view as his shocking depictions of sex: raw, indecorous, anti-erotic, or animalistic. Dumont states that ‘[l]a sexualité est primitive. Elle est justement dans cette nature, c’est-à-dire qu’elle est élémentaire. La culture se fait à partir de cela’.17 In this optic, Dumont’s characters may be seen less as individuals with a particular psychological or social make-up than as allegorical figures representing humanity’s pre-civilized, pre-linguistic origin. Dumont’s idea of an originary man echoes Freud’s, which is similarly articulated in mythological terms. According to Freud, man is driven primarily by primitive instincts rather than by reason or a sense of morality, and is thus amoral or pre-moral, governed by two opposing drives, libido (life instinct) and aggression (death instinct).18 Indeed, as we shall see, Dumont’s characters do seem to represent these instincts rather than the codes of civilization. I will argue that Dumont’s desire to ‘aller au commencement, à la nature’ renders his cinema, like Bataille’s review Documents, ‘agressivement réaliste’, by unveiling man without varnish, as a body in all its animal nudity inseparable from earth, or as a ‘fragment terrestre’.19 Dumont’s characters, who are ‘au commencement, à la nature’, are at once innocent and amoral, hence capable of the utmost violence. This contradiction is to be lived, his films suggest, to its resolution or redemption, which occurs immanently within material existence, not through an immaterial transcendence. This may be demonstrated by the fact that, excepting those of Twentynine Palms (2003), none of Dumont’s protagonists — whatever violence or suffering they may have provoked and/or endured — dies at the end, be they Freddy in La Vie de Jésus, Pharaon in L’humanité, Demester in Flandres, Céline in Hadewijch, or Camille in Camille Claudel 1915. Instead, they are returned to their original landscapes as if to suggest that a sacred mystery is at work there and then. Thus what we may call Dumont’s materialist sacred becomes most palpable when contrasted to the Bressonian sacred. Dumont and Bresson share an undeniable affiliation, as illustrated by their mutual use, for example, of local, non-professional actors whom Bresson prefers to call ‘modèles’ since the term ‘acteur’ evokes for him ‘paraître’ as opposed to ‘être’.20 But in their understanding of redemption and its sources, they differ sharply. For Bresson, man’s inherent proclivity for cruelty and violence means that his earthly existence is irredeemable, except through the radical intervention of divine grace. Bresson’s belief is searingly illustrated in his films Mouchette (1967) and Au hasard Balthazar (1966), whose protagonists are driven to death as sacrificial victims in order to redeem humanity. If the intimacy between the characters and the earth in Dumont’s cinema serves to underscore the materialist sacred, it also means eschewing, or at least questioning, the ideal form of beauty. Dumont’s position finds resonance in a short text by Bataille in which he contests the dictionary definition of the adjective ‘informe’.21 Bataille points out that the adjective ‘informe’ necessarily establishes a hierarchy of ‘forme’ and ‘informe’ in which ‘informe’ is clearly inferior: ‘Ce qu’il [l’informe] désigne n’a ses droits dans aucun sens et se fait écraser partout comme une araignée ou un ver de terre’.22 Bataille connects this hierarchy to philosophy’s sacralization of ‘forme’, which he rejects. Under the guise of a critique of language, Bataille is really disputing Plato’s hierarchical opposition between form/ideal/pure and formless/matter/impure, as well as the Christian idea of God the sovereign, creator of the Form of forms, as Jean-François Louette points out.23 We can free ourselves from the oppressive hold of Form, according to Bataille, by killing God ‘pour apercevoir le monde dans l’infirmité de l’inachèvement’.24 This affirmation amounts to undoing the idea of God the creator of ideal Form, the soaring architecture of whose cathedrals reach to the heavens, to assert, in its stead, an all-too-human, formless, impure, earthbound materiality. Dumont’s resolutely earthy actor-characters would seem to embody this materiality.25 A machine de guerre against what Bataille saw as the idealism in Breton’s surrealism, for all its anti-bourgeois, avant-gardist posturing, his initial discussion of ‘informe’ appeared in a 1929 text entitled ‘Matérialisme’ before becoming, in 1930, ‘Le Bas Matérialisme et la gnose’. Bataille specifies ‘le bas’ in order to distinguish his particular materialism from the vulgar variety promulgated by empiricists and Marxists. He contrasted his Gnosticism-influenced ‘matière’ with ‘la matière morte’ of science and scientism. For Bataille, the scientistic view of matter as an inert thing is based on an idealist system of thought derived from religions. Such a system neglects the phenomenological, or experiential, reality of matter. Hence: ‘Il est temps, lorsque le mot matérialisme est employé, de désigner l’interprétation directe, excluant tout idéalisme, des phénomènes bruts’.26 In opposing the ‘phénomènes bruts’, which would be synonymous with ‘l’informe’, to idealism, Bataille at the same time underscores their autonomous, active, and creative nature — his definition of ‘le mal’ — that resists and is non-absorbable into the cosmic ‘bien’ of God.27 This non-Christian definition of ‘le mal’ is crucial, as Louette points out, both for psychological reasons — in the sense of not submitting to a rationalist or idealist authority — and for aesthetic ones (and ultimately for its relation to the sacred).28 Concerning aesthetics, Bataille finds a striking similarity between the modern art forms (by ‘modern’ he is referring here to the period of 1920s and 1930s) illustrating ‘le matérialisme actuel’ — primitive, minimalist, naïve, abstract, or grotesque — and the gnostic representation of forms. Both break with idealist tradition, and, in so doing, undermine ‘les pouvoirs établis en matière de forme’.29 Beyond the aesthetic domain, then, Bataille’s materialism implies more broadly not submitting to any external authority, including even the very notion of prohibition. For Bataille, transgressing what is prohibited (‘l’interdit’) constitutes in itself the sacred experience. In this light, Dumont’s actor-characters, by not conforming or submitting to the sacrosanct cinematic codes of the ‘star’, transgress the ‘interdit’. If there is any seduction or fascination exerted by Dumont’s actors on the spectator, it would be that which ‘s’oppose radicalement à celle que causent la lumière et la beauté idéale’.30 This seduction — or ‘basse séduction’, as Bataille calls it — constitutes a ‘charme sacrilège’.31 Dumont’s cinema is thus sacred to the extent that it profanes the initial sacred codes, or as Denis Hollier puts it: ‘Le profane ne se sacraliserait jamais s’il n’avait initialement profané le sacré’.32 Besides his choice of actors, Dumont’s depiction of the female sex organ illustrates perhaps most glaringly a ‘charme sacrilège’. Bataille considered sex and sexuality part of the ‘valeurs basses’ as opposed to the ‘valeurs sublimes’ or the ‘valeurs les plus immatérielles’.33 While images of the ‘primitive’ sex act, as mentioned earlier, prevail in Dumont’s films, L’humanité contains scenes that have drawn particular attention due above all to their evident reference to well-known artworks. Soon after the opening sequence described above, we learn that Pharaon was running, after having ‘seen’ the dead body of a young girl with her bloody genitals exposed. Critics immediately invoked Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866) due to the composition and the choice of foreshortening that privileges the sex organ over the visage in this framing of the image. Although it is now common knowledge, as Luc Vancheri points out, that the shot refers less to Courbet’s painting than to Duchamp’s installation piece Étant donnés (1946),34 it is L’Origine du monde nonetheless that has become its key reference point, most likely owing to the immediate, visceral impact that the painting and the shot produce. Furthermore, the shot foreshadows a later image: that of an extreme close-up of Domino’s genitals, offered this time to Pharaon but which he refuses because, although he clearly desires Domino, her sex organ is contaminated, in his mind, by that of the girl — the site of a monstrous crime.35 While each image evokes L’Origine du monde in its subject and composition, taken together the two images could be read allegorically as a vision of humanity’s origin as at once life-giving (Eros) and life-destroying (Thanatos). Vancheri offers an additional insight into the painting: L’Origine du monde ultimately represents ‘la chute d’une pensée chrétienne de la femme […] qui concevait l’humanité sans sexe’.36 Differently stated, by proposing the female sex organ as the origin of the world, rather than God, the painting transgresses the Christian sacred. The spectator, with Pharaon, ‘sees’ the chute, as it were, from the immaterial God to pure materiality. This sacrilege recalls the scene in Bataille’s Madame Edwarda where Mme Edwarda makes the narrator ‘see’ her genitals, declaring ‘je suis Dieu’, which provokes both horror and ecstasy in the narrator.37 This reaction recalls what Kristeva calls ‘l’abject’, which she describes as ‘l’effondrement d’un monde qui a effacé ses limites: évanouissement’.38 The primary example of what causes such an apocalyptic reaction — the erasing of the limits or boundaries between subject and object or between self and other — is the corpse, which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality: Le cadavre (cadere, tomber), ce qui a irrémédiablement chuté, […], bouleverse plus violemment encore l’identité de celui qui s’y confronte […]. Une plaie de sang et de pus, ou l’odeur […], d’une putréfaction, ne signifient pas la mort. Devant la mort signifiée — par exemple un encéphalogramme plat — je comprendrais, je réagirais ou j’accepterais. Non, tel un théâtre vrai, sans fard et sans masque, le déchet comme le cadavre m’indiquent ce que j’écarte en permanence pour vivre. […] Le cadavre — vu sans Dieu et hors de la science — est le comble de l’abjection. Il est la mort infestant la vie. Abject.39The corpse — protected neither by the sublimating or transcendent God, nor by science, whose language of death (signification) we can understand — shows our ‘real’ death, hence the horror. By extension, one could argue that the female sex organ — if seen as the origin of humanity, replacing God, which implies without the spiritual redemption — would be like the corpse and confront us with our material and irredeemable death. At the same time l’abject also fascinates: ‘on en jouit. Violemment et avec douleur. Une passion’.40 In this light, we may imagine Pharaon, no less than the narrator of Madame Edwarda, at once recoil with horror and be irresistibly drawn or en jouir, when he ‘sees’ the young girl’s bloody genitals and then Domino’s intact yet contaminated genitals. This simultaneous horror and jouissance partakes of the sacred experience, or what Kristeva calls the ‘pouvoir sacré de l’horreur’.41 Discussing Madame Edwarda, Gilles Ernst, for his part, likens the narrator’s ‘seeing’ of Mme Edwarda’s genitals to ‘l’exercice spirituel du regard’.42 It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say, then, that the two shots of L’humanité prismed through the painting L’Origine du monde thrust the spectator, with Pharaon, into participating in ‘un rite visuel’ towards a collective sacred experience.43 No less than the painting L’Origine du monde, Dumont’s film La Vie de Jésus commits a sacrilege by the title alone, as we realize that its supposedly sacred protagonist is incarnated by an actor-character who seems to be the very material manifestation of the aforementioned ‘valeurs basses’. Puny in stature, hunched, and scarred from falls during seizures, Freddy is destitute of the least culture, with television reality shows his only education. Significantly, he also has a vigorous sex life with his girlfriend, often out in the fields, like Demester and Barb; he then brutally murders a young Arab out of jealousy for befriending his girlfriend. Far from resembling Jesus as he is commonly imagined, Freddy seems then the very embodiment, to use Bataillean terms, of irredeemable waste, baseness, evil, or ‘ordure primitive’.44 A stupid beast, in a sense, at once brutal and suffering, and carrying his scars like stigmata, Freddy does seem to personify the ‘valeurs basses’ that would render him sacred in the Bataillean sense. The final moments of the film illustrate this most incandescently. We see Freddy lying in the field after having escaped police custody following the murder of the Arab youth. We hear him whimper while the camera cuts sharply to a series of extreme close-ups of: a blade of grass; an ant walking across Freddy’s skin; and then his hands with his thumb, dirty and broken beyond his years, showing he has long toiled, in contact with soil and dirt. The camera follows Freddy’s gaze to the landscape before the screen goes black. The unfolding shots of the grass, the ant, his skin and thumb, accompanied by his feeble whimper like a basso continuo, divert our attention from the atrocity he had just committed to his suffering and absolute vulnerability. There is no protective barrier, it seems, between his skin and the world; he is skin, that of an animal, a pure materiality that is continuous with the humble nature that surrounds him. This utter vulnerability and suffering conjures the instant of Bataillean dissolution of the self, the self communicating with the non-self, in an ekstasis, an out-of-the-self state, that corresponds to mystical experience. The dirt, Freddy’s thumb, his genitals, his driving libido, his seizures, even his murderous instincts, invoke the ‘valeurs basses’, in opposition, needless to say, to the ‘valeurs sublimes’ or ‘valeurs les plus immatérielles’ that constitute the traditional sacred. Dumont, like Bataille, reverses or subverts such traditional notions of the sacred to affirm that the sacred experience is immanent, not transcendent, rooted in the basse matière. This is where I differ, as indicated earlier, from those who interpret the final sequence of La Vie de Jésus in terms of immaterial, Christian transcendence. Bataille is, in fact, quite explicit about the intimate link between animality, in the sense of man’s natural state, and the sacred: Dans la représentation première, le sacré immanent est donné à partir de l’intimité animale de l’homme et du monde, tandis que le monde profane est donné dans la transcendance de l’objet; qui n’a pas d’intimité à laquelle l’humanité soit immanente.45Viewed thus, the life of Jesus in the skin of Freddy conveys, most palpably, the immanent, materialist sacred. While this theme — the intimate relation between the ‘valeurs basses’ and the sacred — prevails in Dumont’s films, Hadewijch treats it perhaps most overtly to the extent that the sacred is embodied, as in La Vie de Jésus, by a most unlikely figure, whose presence, however fugitive, gives the film a full measure of Dumont’s vision of the materialist sacred. The film is thus as much about this figure (played by the late David Dewaele), whose significance is revealed only towards the end of the film, as about the main character, Céline, a novice nun who has adopted the name of a thirteenth-century mystic, Hadewijch. Seen fleetingly throughout the film, in the margins of Céline’s activities, this unnamed, wordless character turns out be a delinquent and parolee. And at the end of the film it is he, arriving like a deus ex machina, who, after Céline’s desperate and futile search for God, ‘saves’ her from what appears to be a suicide attempt in a pond. The pond is found among brambles at the bottom of a hill, while the convent is seen in a distance atop the hill. The meticulous montage and camera-work reveal the significance of these images: the pond, shot in the foreground, suggests the near/low/material/this world, and the convent, in long shot, the far/high/immaterial/the other world. Furthermore, during the penultimate scenes, Céline is framed frequently in lush nature, as if to announce her imminent conversion to the material world. The mystical communion so ardently sought by Celine, which leads her even to commit a terrorist act, is possible, the film suggests, not within the confines of sanctified religion, but through the basse matière incarnated by the character played by Dewaele. Like the actor portraying Freddy, Dewaele is puny, with a physiognomy etched by the story of his short life, which was nearly identical to that of his character and included a history of delinquency, prison, unemployment, and drug use.46 In the film his character’s rescue of Céline from the pond not only surprises the viewer, but also simultaneously evokes and transgresses the Christian baptism. In the last shot, Céline, gasping and dripping wet, cries into the shoulder of a man, hardly the iconographic Christ, but the least, perhaps, of men. Generally speaking, then, in Dumont’s cinema the figures of the sacred are those who seem to incarnate the valeurs basses or the basse matière. The masculine characters are either criminals (Freddy, Demester who participates in the gang rape of a woman belonging to the enemy camp, or the Dewaele character) or intimate witnesses to a crime, Pharaon, for instance. And we, as the spectator, are complicit in a way in these crimes. In other words, le mal, being ‘la trouble rupture d’un tabou’, as Bataille puts it, is communicated to us.47 Bataille defines the sacred as communication,48 and the sacred and horror being inextricable, the sacred is necessarily a cursed communication or what Roger Caillois calls ‘le sacré gauche’.49 Contemplation of the photo of a tortured Chinese man exemplifies for Bataille such a communication: ‘La vue horrible d’un supplice ouvre la sphère où s’enfermait (se limitait) ma particularité personnelle, elle l’ouvre violemment, la déchire’.50 Jean-Michel Besnier explains: ‘le sujet chez Bataille ne s’expérimente jamais que dans le déchirement. C’est justement par là qu’il satisfait à l’exigence de communication qui le définit comme humain. […] Un être autosuffisant, clos sur lui-même, sans déchirure, ne communique pas’.51 The horror we experience watching Dumont’s films, then, can be said to be integral to experience of the sacred: communication opening up the individual, immured self through its violent tearing. Here, Dumont’s belief in the film’s key function as creating a ‘huge shockwave’ takes on a further resonance.52 But how does this sacred communication articulate with our concrete existence? Does it entail some form, or at least the hope, of redemption of our daily life? If so, what redemption, and how is it effected? As mentioned above, none of Dumont’s protagonists dies, except the ones in Twentynine Palms. Instead, the ultimate, or crucial, images are those of the characters reclaimed, as it were, by the landscape: we find Freddy in a field under a luminous light, Pharaon levitating in a humble public garden, Demester in an embrace with Barb in a barn, and Céline in the arms of a nameless man in the midst of wild nature. These endings suggest Dumont’s resolutely materialist or this-worldly redemption: he is far less concerned with life post-mortem than life hic et nunc. This concern echoes Bataille’s own, despite the common perception of him as a mystic.53 In fact, Bataille claims that ‘je n’aime pas le mot mystique. […] L’expérience intérieure répond à la nécessité dans laquelle je me trouve — l’existence humaine avec moi — de mettre tout en cause, en problème, sans admettre trêve’.54 Blanchot’s reading of L’Expérience intérieure seems just: far from seeking oblivion, Bataillean experience signifies ‘le cheminement exigeant qui s’affirme par la mise en jeu et la mise hors d’elle de l’existence insuffisante et ne pouvant renoncer à cette insuffisance’.55 One may thus even venture to call Bataille an existentialist who, far from fleeing it, confronts and embraces ‘la blessure ouverte qu’est ma vie’, someone for whom whatever redemption may occur following death is without interest.56 Bataille uses the notion of ‘la blessure ouverte’ to oppose Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of the Hegelian system whose dialectic negativity is supposed to lead to the end of history, the logical closure of human striving. For Bataille, the Hegelian negativity is ‘employed’ towards a final goal, whereas his own remains ‘la négativité sans emploi’; it does not aspire to a telos, but embraces negativity like a perpetually open wound. It is this negativity — which never ends, but is open to, even desires, excess and horror as well as ecstasy — that defines, as Ernst observes, the Bataillean sacred experience.57 Nietzsche — who for Bataille is ‘un Nietzsche sacré’58 — had foreshadowed the Bataillean affirmation of useless negativity in terms of amor fati: My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it — all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary — but love it.59An amor fati moment may be glimpsed towards the end of Camille Claudel 1915. About nine minutes into the film, we see Camille (played by Juliette Binoche) seated outdoors on a bench against a stone wall. The camera follows her gaze towards the bare branches of a tree, which fill the frame against the space starkly divided between a cloudless blue sky and the psychiatric hospital wall. She is soon joined by one of the severely disabled patients. The camera then alternates between a close-up of the branches, Binoche’s face, and that of the other patient. The contrast between the serene sky glimpsed through the branches — evoking perhaps an indifferent universe or absent God — by the artist Camille and the human decrepitude borne by the other patient could not be starker. The last sequence of the film reprises a near-identical mise-en-scène. After the departure of her brother Paul, who has refused to consent to the release of his sister against the doctor’s advice, we see Camille in long shot, seated alone this time against the hospital’s church wall. The long shot that renders her diminutive seems to highlight her now inexorable confinement and absolute solitude, with the church wall symbolizing perhaps the hollow armature of God. The camera then follows her gaze towards a sun-drenched, furrowed garden, whose Cartesian order and symmetry, evoking ideal Form or reason, contrasts cruelly with what Camille may be experiencing at this moment, ranging from confusion to despair. The camera cuts sharply to the final scene, which lasts nearly two minutes. We now see Camille in medium shot, squinting as if trying to fathom the dazzling, yet resolutely silent, light from the sky. Then the frame freezes: Camille’s head is slightly tilted, she has a hint of a smile, and her eyes are now downcast. With this extraordinarily simple composition, silent except for the amplified chirping of birds, this shot captures, like a still photograph, her next twenty-nine years. Camille having ceased to sculpt, her life will be rhythmed, as the freeze-frame intimates, only by the rigorously identical return of the seasons. Although we cannot know precisely what goes through her mind, it seems probable that the Christian God, represented by Paul, is definitively dead for Camille. And the touch of smile on her face could be read, refracted through Nietzschean amor fati, as her lightning realization of the tragedy that is her life and her embracing its non-sense, along with the ambient horror of madness and decrepitude. This suggests Bataillean expérience intérieure: descend into the night of existence, drown in anguish to the point of drunkenness, and celebrate ‘l’apothéose du nonsens’ since ‘[l]a nuit est aussi un soleil’.60 Camille Claudel’s life communicates nothing less than ‘la blessure ouverte qu’est ma vie’ and, as Bataille writes, ‘[l]a communication demande un défaut, une “faille”; elle entre, comme la mort, par un défaut de la cuirasse. Elle demande une coïncidence de deux déchirures, en moi-même, en autrui’.61 Witnessing Camille’s suffering provokes a breach, like a broken dam, in the armoured shell of the individual spectator, allowing for compassion and communication to flood in. As for the Paul Claudel character, he clearly represents the Christian sacred, a ‘pur bloc de certitude’, in contrast to Camille’s self-loss and wholly permeable wound.62 Her fellow patients, likely unconscious of their own condition, are even more the ‘fou[s] égaré[s]’.63 Their decrepitude and the horror it inspires partake of Bataillean ‘valeurs basses’, which render them sacred figures, or the ‘sacré maudit’, tearing open the spectator so that communication may occur. Bataille writes: [Avant que Dieu ne soit] reconnu mort […], Dieu représentait la seule limite s’opposant à la volonté humaine, libre de Dieu, cette volonté est livrée nue à la passion de donner au monde une signification qui l’enivre. Celui qui crée, qui figure ou qui écrit ne peut plus admettre aucune limite à la figuration ou à l’écriture.64In other words, Romantic or traditional notions of the beautiful, the true and the good — the heritage of Christianity — are no longer tenable. Bataille proposes replacing this heritage, or the ‘valeurs sublimes’ (‘immatérielles’), with new values or the ‘valeurs basses’ (‘matérielles’). It follows that the sacred that had been entrenched within the limits of the first is obsolete and is to be rekindled with the latter. And the sacred is, above all, ‘un moment privilégié d’unité communielle, moment de communication convulsive de ce qui ordinairement est étouffé’.65 The ‘communication convulsive’ becomes possible by recuperating and embracing what has been historically rejected as evil, waste, basse matière, ugly, mad, or horrifying. Broadly speaking, Dumont’s actor-characters and their natural habitats represent, as I have shown, such rejected elements. Profaning the traditional cinematic codes held sacred, Dumont, like Bataille, claims sacred experience as originating from within these elements — material and immanent. As such, rather than being psychological or character studies of particular individuals in particular geographical locations, Dumont’s cinema seeks to represent ‘originary’ or ‘primitive’ humanity, which contains immanently, along with its instinctual drives at once libidinal and destructive, the possibility of the sacred. By defying traditional aesthetic values, or ‘les pouvoirs établis en matière de forme’, Dumont’s cinema asserts a sovereignty that does not submit to a rationalist or idealist authority. Bataille has argued that literature is an expression of le mal, which, being autonomous and sovereign, transcends the dualist Christian moral categories. At the same time, ‘cette conception ne commande pas l’absence de morale, elle exige une “hypermorale”’.66 With its potential to generate a ‘huge shockwave’ or convulsive communication, Dumont’s cinema imparts a similar aspiration. Hollier affirms that Bataille’s objective is to go beyond, like Nietzsche before him, the division between good and evil, in search of ‘la vérité morale’, ‘une passion inassouvie’.67 We may say as much for Dumont’s cinema. Footnotes 1 Georges Bataille, ‘La Conjuration sacrée’, in Œuvres complètes (hereafter OC), 12 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1970–88), i (1970), 442–46 (p. 443). 2 Bruno Dumont, in ‘Pour un cinéma de la vérité’, interview by Audrey Jeamart, 31 August 2006, <http://www.critikat.com/actualite-cine/entretien/bruno-dumont.html > [accessed 19 September 2017]. 3 Denis Hollier, ‘La Valeur d’usage de l’impossible’, Preface to Bataille, Documents (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1991), pp. vii–xxiv (xxi). Bataille intended this review to be a critical reaction against what he regarded as the idealist surrealism, led by André Breton. 4 Bataille, ‘Lieux de pèlerinage, Hollywood’, OC, i, 198–99 (p. 198). 5 Bataille, ‘Lieux de pèlerinage, Hollywood’, OC, i, 199. 6 See Guy Austin, ‘The Amateur Actors of Cannes 1999: A Shock to the (Star) System’, French Cultural Studies, 15 (2004), 251–63. 7 James Quandt, ‘Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema’, Artforum, 42 (2004), 24–27 (p. 24). 8 See, for instance, Tina Kendall, ‘“No God but Cinema”: Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch’, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 17 (2013), 405–13 (p. 407), and John Caruana, ‘Bruno Dumont’s Cinema: Nihilism and the Disintegration of the Christian Imaginary’, in Religion in Contemporary European Cinema: The Postsecular Constellation, ed. by Costică Brădăţan and Camil Ungureanu (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), pp. 110–25 (p. 123). 9 Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature, trans. by Sherry Weber Nicholson, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). Adorno states that ‘art […] by its very nature is deviation; only as deviation does it have a right to exist in the rational world and the power to assert itself’ (p. 147). 10 Jean-Marc Lalanne, ‘Bruno Dumont: mystique ou profane?’, Les Inrocks, 25 November 2009, <http://www.lesinrocks.com/2009/11/25/cinema/actualite-cinema/bruno-dumont-mystique-ou-profane-1135647 > [accessed 19 September 2017]. 11 In an interview with Olivier Père, Dumont explains that he chose Binoche to play Claudel because he wanted an artist to play an artist: ‘J’ai toujours fait d’un paysan un paysan et d’une artiste une artiste. L’artiste Juliette Binoche m’aide à cerner l’artiste Camille Claudel’; ‘Camille Claudel 1915: entretien avec Bruno Dumont’, Blog d’Olivier Père, 11 March 2013, <https://www.arte.tv/sites/olivierpere/2015/07/27/camille-claudel-1915-entretien-avec-bruno-dumont-2 > [accessed 19 September 2017]. 12 It is well known that Dumont has insisted on using the minuscule ‘h’ in the title, not the majuscule that is the French typographical norm. 13 This camera movement — ‘un plan subjectif’ — which follows a character’s gaze to reveal what they see, or their inner state, is pervasive in Dumont’s cinema. He explains it while discussing Flandres: ‘Filmer un plan subjectif de Demester’, for instance, ‘c’est aller au sentiment de Demester. Ce n’est plus la campagne, on est à l’intérieur de lui’ (Dumont, in ‘Pour un cinéma de la vérité’, interview by Jeamart). Dumont’s approach evokes that of Bresson: ‘Monter un film, c’est lier les personnages […] aux objets par les regards’ (Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), p. 24). 14 See, for instance, Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Overrated Solutions: L’humanité’, 22 June 2000, <https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2000/06/overrated-solutions > [accessed 19 September 2017]. In his latest film, Ma Loute (2016), Dumont partially breaks with his usual practice by using French stars, including Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who portray a degenerate bourgeois family. But at the same time non-professional locals, playing the village fishermen, are equally central to the film. 15 Dumont, quoted in Damon Smith, ‘Bruno Dumont, hors Satan’, Filmmaker Magazine, 17 January 2013, <http://filmmakermagazine.com/62955-bruno-dumont-hors-satan > [accessed 19 September 2017]. The translator of Dumont’s speech is not mentioned in this article. 16 Maryline Alligier, Bruno Dumont: l’animalité et la grâce (Aix-en-Provence: Rouge Profond, 2012), p. 10; Dumont, in ‘Pour un cinéma de la vérité’, interview by Jeamart. 17 Dumont, in ‘Pour un cinéma de la vérité’, interview by Jeamart. 18 See Sigmund Freud, and James Strachey, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Liveright, 1961). 19 Paul Valéry, ‘Le Cimetière marin’, Œuvres, 2 vols, ed. by Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1957–60), i , 147–52 (p. 149). 20 Bresson writes: ‘Pas d’acteurs. (Pas de direction d’acteurs.) Pas de rôles. (Pas d’études de rôles.) Pas de mise en scène. Mais l’emploi de modèles, pris dans la vie. ÊTRE (modèles) au lieu de PARAÎTRE (acteurs)’ (Notes sur le cinématographe, p. 16). 21 Bataille, ‘Informe’, OC, i, 217. 22 Bataille, ‘Informe’, OC, i, 217. 23 Jean-François Louette, ‘Informitas de l’univers et figures humaines. Bataille entre Queneau et Leiris’, <http://www.cairn.info/revue-litterature-2008-4-page-119.htm > [accessed 19 September 2017]. 24 Bataille, OC, v (1953), 262; quoted by Louette in ‘Informitas de l’univers et figures humaines’. 25 See Denis Hollier, La Prise de la concorde: essais sur Georges Bataille (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 42. 26 Bataille, ‘Matérialisme’, OC, i, 179–80 (p. 180). 27 Bataille, ‘Le Bas Matérialisme et la gnose’, OC, i, 220–26 (p. 223). 28 Louette, ‘Informitas de l’univers et figures humaines’, para. 14. 29 Bataille, ‘Le Bas Matérialisme et la gnose’, OC, i, 225. 30 Bataille, ‘Le Gros Orteil’, OC, i, 200–04 (p. 204). 31 Bataille, ‘Le Gros Orteil’, OC, i, 203 and 204. 32 Denis Hollier, ‘Le Matérialisme dualiste de Georges Bataille’, Tel quel, 25 (1965), 41–54 (p. 48). 33 Bataille, ‘La “Vieille Taupe” et le préfixe sur dans les mots surhomme et surréaliste’, OC, ii (1988), 93–109 (p. 103). 34 Luc Vancheri, Cinéma et peinture: passages, partages, présences (Paris: Armand Colin, 2007), pp. 123–25. 35 Dumont: it was as if Domino were ‘enceinte du crime, éprouvant son vice, celui de son amant [Joseph]’; from the script of L’humanité ((Paris: 00h00 Éditions, 1999), p. 89), quoted by Alligier in Bruno Dumont, p. 84. 36 Vancheri, Cinéma et peinture, p. 124. 37 Bataille, Madame Edwarda, OC, iii (1971), 9–31 (p. 31). 38 Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur: essai sur l’abjection (Paris: Seuil, 1983), p. 11. 39 Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, pp. 11–12; emphases original. 40 Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, p. 17. 41 Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, p. 246. 42 Gilles Ernst, Georges Bataille: analyse du récit de mort (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), p. 82. 43 Ernst, Georges Bataille, p. 83. 44 Bataille, ‘Le Langage des fleurs’, OC, i, 173–78 (p. 176). 45 Bataille, Théorie de la religion, OC, vii (1976), 281–351 (p. 325); quoted by Candy Hoffmann in ‘Le Sacré chez Georges Bataille’, Communication, lettres et sciences du langage, 5 (2011), 72–81 (p. 79). 46 Gérard Lefort, ‘Seigneur ombrageux mais habité’, Libération, 17 March 2013, <http://next.liberation.fr/cinema/2013/03/17/dewaele-seigneur-ombrageux-mais-habite_889254 > [accessed 19 September 2017]. 47 Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, OC, vi (1973), 7–205 (p. 16). 48 See Bataille, Le Coupable, OC, v, 235–392. 49 Roger Caillois, L’Homme et le sacré (Paris: Gallimard, 1950), pp. 48–49; quoted by Hoffmann in ‘Le Sacré chez Georges Bataille’, p. 78. Caillois makes a distinction between the ‘sacré droit’ and the ‘sacré gauche’, which comprises elements that are impure, malevolent, or destructive. 50 Bataille, Le Coupable, OC, v, 272. 51 Jean-Michel Besnier, ‘Georges Bataille et la modernité: “la politique de l’impossible”’, Revue du MAUSS, 1 (2005), 190–206, <http://www.cairn.info/revue-du-mauss-2005-1-page-190.htm > [accessed 19 September 2017], para. 26. 52 Quoted in Smith, ‘Bruno Dumont, hors Satan’. 53 Sartre famously conferred on him the somewhat sarcastic sobriquet of ‘un nouveau mystique’; Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Un nouveau mystique’, in Situations, 10 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1947–76), i (1947), 172–213. 54 Bataille, L’Expérience intérieure, OC, v, 7–189 (p. 15). 55 Maurice Blanchot, La Communauté inavouable (Paris: Minuit, 1983), pp. 18–19. 56 Bataille, ‘Lettre à X’ (1937), in Choix de lettres. 1917–1962 (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), pp. 131–32. 57 Ernst, Georges Bataille, p. 86. 58 See Ernst, Georges Bataille, p. 67. 59 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: Basic Writings of Nietzsche. trans. and ed. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library Giants, 1968), p. 714. 60 Bataille, L’Expérience intérieure, OC, v, 55. Bataille uses ‘[l]a nuit est aussi un soleil’, a phrase from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–91), as the epigraph to L’Expérience intérieure. 61 Bataille, Le Coupable, OC, v, 266. 62 Gérard Lefort, ‘Camille Claudel 1915: Juliette des esprits dérangés’, Libération, 12 March 2013, <http://next.liberation.fr/cinema/2013/03/12/juliette-des-esprits-deranges_888030 > [accessed 19 September 2017]. 63 Bataille, Théorie de la religion, OC, vii, 302. 64 Bataille, ‘Le Sacré’, OC, i, 559–63 (p. 562). 65 Bataille, ‘Le Sacré’, OC, i, 562. 66 Bataille, La Littérature et le mal, OC, ix (1979), 169–316 (p. 171). 67 Hollier, ‘Le Matérialisme dualiste’, p. 44. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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