Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dumont’s Hors Satan

According to traditional Christian theology, evil is not the opposite of good, it is the perversion.  That could also be the motto engraved on Bruno Dumont’s family crest.  Ever the aesthetically and thematically challenging auteur, Dumont again focuses on extreme manifestations of faith, lust, and wrath, which may or may not be fundamentally intertwined in his latest film, Hors Satan (trailer here), opening this Friday at the Anthology Film Archives.

“The Guy” awakens in a rugged field somewhere in the northern French Côte d’Opale.  When he knocks on a door, an unseen woman’s arm gives him his daily bread.  Soon the vagrant will be joined by the slightly goth “Girl.”  Suddenly the morning stillness is broken when he delivers retribution to her abusive stepfather with a hunting rifle.  It is a shocking, but matter-of-fact incident that hardly seems to interrupt the Guy’s regular routine.

Many times we watch his morning prayers and alms, as well the innumerable long walks he takes with the Girl.  She is definitely interested in him, but seems above and beyond temptations of the flesh.  Yet, at times he performs ostensive exorcisms that are overtly (and violently) sexualized.  In several keys scenes, sex is either a purifying or corrupting force.  Dumont leaves such judgments frustratingly indeterminate.

Compared to Dumont’s ethically muddled Hadewijch and his brutally didactic Flanders, Hors Satan is paradoxically less accessible but more spiritually engaging.  Despite the moral ambiguity of the central figure, HS explores issues of faith in good faith, so to speak.  The Guy is clearly an archetypal holy fool, but if he should fall from grace, would the villagers realize it?

Arguably, David Dewaele is not really playing a flesh-and-blood character as the Guy, but a focus for the projections of both the Girl and the audience.  Nonetheless, his gaunt look and vague sense of menace are undeniably effective.  As the Girl, Alexandra Lamatre’s raw earthiness and wide-eyed innocence are quite arresting, wholly suiting Dumont’s austerity.

Shunning any kind of soundtrack music or post-sound, Dumont recorded his cast in the moment, with only the natural ambient background as accompaniment.  Wind through the grass was never so audibly ominous.  This is a tres deliberate film that can tax viewer indulgence in six or seven ways simultaneously.  However, it has a specific and dramatic end in mind.  If you see only one Dumont film, this might be the one to choose.  Recommended for adventurous cineastes fully cognizant of Dumont’s style, Hors Satan opens this Friday (1/18) in New York at the Anthology Film Archives.