"I think the French are diseased," says the director Bruno Dumont, taking a drag on the fourth or fifth cigarette he has lit in the past half-hour. "Everything happening in France at the moment shows it's a diseased country. It's a country that is searching for meaning and can't find it. That's why I feel a lot happier when I'm abroad."
It is hard to tell whether Dumont, one of the most intriguing and talented film-makers in France, is being serious. Throughout our interview he maintains a completely deadpan expression and speaks in clipped sentences, peppered with references to Sophocles and Nietzsche. It's as if he is consciously playing up to his reputation as a lofty, dispassionate French auteur.
With films such as Humanity, which won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 1999, and The Life of Jesus (1997), Dumont has been hailed as the great hope of French art-house cinema, heir to iconic directors such as Robert Bresson. Yet, in a changed market, this has not necessarily endeared him to audiences. His latest film, Flanders, which comes out in the UK in July, also triumphed at Cannes, but sold only 80,000 tickets when it was released in France.
Dumont's films touch on problems at the heart of French society. Often set around his home town of Bailleul in northern France, and using non-professional actors, they deal with bored, jobless youth, racist attacks and the sharp end of sexual politics. Using cinematography that has as much in common with landscape painting as it does with any film tradition, Dumont explores the inner worlds of his characters, drawing on an academic background in philo sophy. "My films are completely philosophical," he says. "It's a metaphysical cinema: good, evil, love, hate."
The British press has gleefully reported the commercial failures of Flanders and other recent French art-house films, hailing the demise of one of France's proudest cultural assets. Dumont agrees that the form is in crisis. "France is overfed by globalisation. The film-loving public no longer exists. It's now a public of consumers who are nostalgic for an old style of cinema that has disappeared."
Many in the French film industry would dispute this interpretation as, on the face of it, their cinema seems to be in excellent health: French-made films accounted for a higher percentage of box-office takings in 2006 than they had for more than 20 years. What has changed, however, is that French film-makers are buying in to the idea of the blockbuster. Last year, the slapstick comedy Camping, a Carry On-style farce, attracted 5.5 million viewers. Although the hairstyles and fashions of the 1960s Nouvelle Vague movement are still popular on both sides of the Channel, its former leading lights Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette find it increasingly difficult to get their films funded.
Stéphane Bouquet, a critic for the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, compares the situation in France today to that of the UK in the 1970s, just before Margaret Thatcher took power. "The majority of the public don't want to see intelligent films because they're haunted by the idea of the decline of France. People just want to have fun when they go to the movies." Dumont agrees. "France is suffering from an identity crisis," he says. "When I film in Flanders, I'm filming French people, but they don't want to see it."
It is understandable, perhaps, that anyone looking for an easy escape from the stresses of daily life might want to avoid Flanders. It tells the story of young farmers from northern France who leave their village to fight in an unnamed war. Like Dumont's previous films, it is a difficult mix of violence, relentlessly grim sex scenes and miserable-looking characters who don't say much. The protagonist, a farmer called Demes ter (played by Samuel Boidin), is "a prehistoric man who reaches humanity". Amid the brutality of war, he participates in a gang rape and witnesses the murder of a child.
The scenes are filmed with remarkable directness, a far cry from the stylised images of war we are used to watching on film. Dumont describes Demester's journey as "the process of becoming aware; of being anchored in evil and going towards the light. I'm interested in the idea of the body being the root of the spirit. And that's why my actors don't speak much, because it starts and ends with the body."
In France, where secularism is highly prized, Dumont's films have been criticised for being too "Catholic" in their portrayal of the battle between good and evil. He responds to this with derision. "I'm not Catholic. I don't believe in God. But at the same time, I'm obsessed by the sacred, by spirituality. The question of redemption has been present well before Christianity, but as French people are a bit stupid, they see all that in religious terms."
The war scenes, set in an unidentified desert, are an almost hallucinatory evocation of conflicts past and present. The soldiers wear modern US-style uniforms, but ride on horseback like 19th-century colonialists. These images are interspersed with shots of life back in Flanders, where tractors churn up the mud of what was once a battlefield in the First World War. I wonder if Dumont is trying to deflate France's pride at its non-interventionist stance in the current Iraq conflict. "It's not a historical document of what's happening there, but when one thinks of war today, one thinks of Iraq. So I used superficial elements of the Iraq war in order that the viewer believes it. But I very quickly move beyond that - the exterior in my cinema is only a metaphor for a person's interior."
Although his films do not directly engage with politics, Dumont believes that "to retain his dignity, an artist must live in opposition. He must be critical of his country. If not, then he is worthless." He intends to vote for the "extreme left" in next month's presidential elections.
Dumont sets out to present human beings in their "natural" state. The awkward-looking, flabby-cheeked farmers who populate his films are, according to the director, inspired by the tradition of Flemish painting native to Belgium and northern France. The people often seem to be just another feature of the landscape. "When the Flemish paint Christ, he's a peasant," the director notes. "It's a painting of the common man. A way of expressing human nature."
How much Dumont actually identifies with the common man, however, is another question. Although he grew up in the area where his films are set, there is a sense that he is observing working-class life from a lofty height. He tells me that his first experiences of rural life were accom panying his father, a doctor, on medical visits. "I would usually stay in the car, but I'd see the farms and hospices. I would look." Watching his films often feels a little like looking through the eyes of a young boy with his nose pressed up against a car window, gazing at these strange, ugly beasts of the countryside who fight and fuck in the same unthinking way as the animals they tend.
Other critics have pointed to his one-dimensional treatment of female characters. This is borne out by Flanders: while Demester's story is one of enlightenment, his girlfriend Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) swings in and out of madness. She lets the men of the village use her for sex without ever giving us an insight into what drives her. "Women exist in my imagination," explains Dumont. "So they are necessarily a type of abstraction." At this point, the hint of a smile creeps across his face. "Many women criticise me for this vision, but I explain to them it's to be expected, because I am a man."
Perhaps it is little wonder that, in the end, a director who keeps a rather disdainful distance from his characters also finds it difficult to sustain the interest of a mass audience. Typically, Dumont maintains that it doesn't bother him. "Personally, I don't give a toss about French viewers. I make films for foreigners - it's a bit like Ken Loach, who's not very popular in England but has had a lot of success in France. Cinema is always an experience in a foreign body."
"Flanders" is released on 6 July
Catch them soon: This year's biggest French films
La Vie en Rose
Forget art-house chic - this film is a French blockbuster. Olivier Dahan's biopic of Édith Piaf stars Marion Cotillard as the tough, tragic star. Dahan attempts to tells Piaf's story using her songs to interpret her life. The film has met with mixed reviews. According to the Guardian, it has "great performances and beautiful set design; pity about the script, the editing and the direction". Out in the UK on 22 June.
A Few Days in September
Again, French cinema with a Hollywood twist. Juliette Binoche plays a secret agent who, prior to the twin towers attack, is trying to track down a former boss (played by Nick Nolte) who holds crucial intelligence. A political thriller. Out in the UK in August/September.
Days of Glory
Reviewed in last week's NS, Days of Glory tells the story of the racism suffered by four Algerian men who enlist in the French army during the Second World War. Directed by Rachid Bouchareb, it prompted Jacques Chirac to bring all French army pensions into line with those paid to French veterans. Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Samy Naceri, Jamel Debbouze and Roschdy Zem jointly took the Best Actor prize at Cannes. Out now.
Oliver Meyrou directs this documentary with, according to the NS reviewer Ryan Gilbey, "breathtaking compassion". It follows Jean-Paul and Marie-Cécile Chenu (left), whose son François was murdered in a homophobic attack in 2002. Winner of the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival 2006. Out now.