Sporting one of the all-time misleading titles, Life of Jesus is actually about a small group of young provincial louts in Northern France, slouching through their empty and aimless existence during one particularly long, hot summer. It’s an impressive debut from writer-director Bruno Dumont, audacious and original, yet ultimately falling short of its intention.
Its protagonist is 20-year-old Freddy (David Douche), a beady-eyed skinhead who looks like a cross between a very young Gerard Depardieu and an animated lump of dough. Freddy is epileptic and lives with his mother, who runs the local bistro. Inexplicably, he has a girlfriend of model-like beauty, Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) – inexplicably, that is, until you meet his mates. In this crowd of somnambulistic late-adolescents, Freddy can easily pass for dynamic.
There’s a thin line between depicting boredom and generating it, and for much of the film Dumont manages to keep his balance. Freddy and his friends race their motorbikes, sit around and make small talk – very small – and plan revenge against a local Arab boy (Kader Chaatouf), whom they imagine has been making advances toward Marie. When not hanging out, Freddy and Marie are going at it like rabbits, graphically but not erotically. What else is there to do?
Dumont’s camera lingers over Freddy’s scenic but desolate surroundings – azure sky, undulating fields, the empty streets of the picturesque town. The movie moves in its slow but not unpleasant pace toward an inevitable act of violence. Freddy, all too human, is no better or worse than he can be, a complicated sprout un-nurtured by the simple soil of his environment and seeking realization in sex and violence.
But the film doesn’t really work as the Christian parable its title suggests. Dumont’s style is too elliptical, too withholding to invest Freddy’s plight with the needed humanistic dimension. His desire to lift his story to a universal level is palpable, but the expected epiphanies never arrive. What’s left is an enigma, closely observed but finally unknowable.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].