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French Auteur Bruno Dumont on His Upcoming Joan of Arc Musical ‘Jeanette’

French director Bruno Dumont early in his career made dour naturalistic dramas “La Vie de Jesus” and “L’Umanité,” set in the Opal Coast in Northern France, and more recently broadened his palette to comic crime and slapstick comedy in the same setting. This week the versatile auteur attended the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event to give a master class and mentor young Arab directors. He spoke to Variety about his rapport with Arab cinema; the second season of his TV series “Li’l Quinquin,” which he expects to start shooting in May; and his upcoming musical movie “Jeanette,” about Joan of Arc’s childhood transition from peasant girl to God’s warrior, which is tipped to premiere soon in Cannes. Excerpts from the interview.

How has your experience at Qumra been? What was your prior rapport with Arab cinema?

It was very interesting to meet the young directors here, because through their projects they were talking to me about matters that I myself am still coming to grips with. Until now I’d seen mostly films that evoke the Arab situation in a French context, which is very specific. Now what’s made a big impression on me is the reality of the Arab world at large. Arab civilization, with its art, it’s people. Something I didn’t know well and I found it very interesting. Of course you really have to come here to experience it in full. It’s made me reflect on the fact that the Arab problem in France is really the problem of integration. People who are neither French nor Arabic; they are in between two cultures. The Arab films I’ve seen here are instead about people who are totally in their element.

In conceiving “Li’l Quinquin,” which was shown here before your master class, how conscious were you of the fact that you were making it for TV. Both in terms of the medium itself, and also of its audience?

It was a commission by Arte and I was given carte blanc. But I put it in my head that it was for TV, that I would not be doing thirty-second long shots. I also tried to keep in mind the size of the screen, the faster rhythm. I really wanted to change the way I work. And I told myself it was an opportunity to do a comedy.

What can you tell me about the next season, which you are about to shoot. I understand it’s going to have supernatural elements.

Yes it will. What I like about making a TV series is that you can prolong characters and put them in new stories. The second season will be five years later. Quinquin [the main character] has grown up now. He behaves differently, has a different relationship with society and a different rapport with politics. I also like characters embarking on new adventures, with elements of fantasy and surrealism. The supernatural element will be the disruption created by the arrival of extraterrestrials.

And the political element will be France’s National Front, right?

Yes, Quinquin has become a Nationalist. So I will try to depict present-day France with its problems and political issues, like immigration. But do it in a very humorous way.

Your costume slapstick murder mystery “Ma Loute” starring Juliette Binoche, which premiered at Cannes last year, is about to open via Kino Lorber in the U.S. where it will be titled “Slack Bay.” Was its wacky comic aspect a natural progression from “Quinquin”? 

Yes, absolutely. It’s a rather bizarre type of humour, with a more cinematographic dimension; more dramatic, more melodramatic. But it stems from “Quinquin.” Unilike “Quinquin” [where the actors are mostly non pros] I had very well known French actors, Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini, playing bourgeoise characters totally over the top.

Meanwhile you’ve just finished your first musical “Jeanette” about Joan of Arc, based on a text by turn-of-the-century French poet and writer Charles Péguy. “Jeanette” will feature an experimental electro-pop score. Can you talk to me it?

I have adapted a part of Peguy’s piece titled “La Petite Jean” about when Joan of Arc was between 8 and 14 years old. My film ends where all the other movies begin. What I was interested in is how a young very simple peasant girl can become such an icon and have a desire to become a warrior of God, which for me is a total mystery. I tried to understand that, which is exactly what Peguy does. Except he’s a poet and quite difficult to read. I tried to do it through a musical, with songs and dance so that these very difficult questions could become very easy [to understand]. In other words I’m glad because it’s a way of saying very deep things — because Peguy is very deep — in a way that’s very approachable by a wide audience, since there is now a large audience for musical comedies.

Can you tell me more about the musical aspect?

The melodies are very popular, the music is electro-pop, so very contemporary. It’s what young people listen to. They songs are a bit like rap. There are some very poetic themes in rap, Peguy is actually a rapper if you listen to his poems. It’s a big cauldron of genres, produced by Arte for both TV and movie theatres. We have two versions. In France it will go out on TV on Arte followed by a theatrical release.

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