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Hors Satan | Review

Bruno Dumont Returns To The Austere Mode of His First Two Features For A Wicked View of Spirituality

For a second there, it appeared that Bruno Dumont had gone a bit soft. His previous film Hadewijch continued his parade into Robert Bresson territory (with a nod to the hallowed Rosetta finale, for good measure), but he achieved this ascension sans the grimy sex and brutal violence that his name had become synonymous with. Alarmingly programmed in the Un Certain Regard section, Hors Satan represents a relapse of sorts to his earlier style; comparably accomplished, yet even more tediously austere. Anyone expecting an active, engaged viewing experience – as employed in Hadewijch – will curse every one of its 110 minutes.

Set in France’s rural Côte d’Opale region – which is about 250km north of Paris, and is perhaps the closest that French dirt gets to the UK – a zen loner, simply denominated ‘The Guy’ (Dumont alum David Dewaele), has a peculiar kinship with ‘The Girl’ (newcomer Alexandra Lematre). The Girl has a certain allegiance to The Guy; to call her his ‘disciple’ would be the most accurate barometer of their mysterious relationship, for she not only brings him food and company, but also meditates with him to the morning sunrise and assists in some of his ambiguously malevolent acts. He rejects her passes for sex, seemingly for the sake of celibacy, though it is never a question that the two feel for each other something not unlike, but almost certainly distinct from, love.

The above description is all we really have to go on for the first hour or so, plot-wise, and its this lack of narrative or drama that makes wading through it so exhausting. There is a carefully crafted tug-of-war between beauty (the landscape and the tender companionship) and ugliness (the violence and – let’s face it, Dumont does this on purpose – the supremely unattractive, grimy physical appearances of the characters) that makes for an even more complex and ambivalent viewer-character psychological identification. Even the film’s big sex scene, involving The Guy and ‘The Backpacker’, is horrific and repulsive; a near-parody of Dumont’s trademark raw and explicit sex scenes – it progresses ‘ugly’ to downright depraved.

The look of the film has a modest aesthetic appeal, and Dumont allows the lush landscape to be attractive without evoking the glory of God. The expansive scope compositions feel especially horizontal here, as the land expands far beyond both sides of the beady bodies in the frame. The colour palette has a desaturated smokiness that integrates all of the subjects into the vistas like a whitewashed glaze. The land becomes just as good or evil as the people we observe, as it all derives from the same stuff. For the sake of harmony, the acting styles of the two leads is nearly as understated as the performance by the earth. In the mode other ascetic directors like Pedro Costa and Manoel de Oliveira, Dumont employs a stripped, presentational acting method that separates their presences from humanity, reducing them to something more aptly described as ‘vehicles’.

Love it or despise it, Dumont has carefully and precisely assembled exactly what he wants, in his own method, and is shooting for the fences. He wears his influences on his sleeve – still primarily Bresson, although this time with a hint of Pialat’s Under Satan’s Sun – and will no-doubt be a staple in conversations about said major directors when all is said and done. By turns more stripped down to the essence of Dumont’s concerns, and more alienating in its rejection of dramaturgy, and it could very well eventually become known as the purest Bruno Dumont experience. Pencil it into your festival schedules, or cast out its wicked being, accordingly.

Reviewed on May 17th at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard section

Runtime: 110 Mins

Rating 3.5 stars

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Blake Williams is an avant-garde filmmaker born in Houston, currently living and working in Toronto. He recently entered the PhD program at University of Toronto's Cinema Studies Institute, and has screened his video work at TIFF (2011 & '12), Tribeca (2013), Images Festival (2012), Jihlava (2012), and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Blake has contributed to's coverage for film festivals such as Cannes, TIFF, and Hot Docs. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Talk to Her), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Code Unknown), Hsiao-Hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), Kar-wai (Happy Together), Kiarostami (Where is the Friend's Home?), Lynch (INLAND EMPIRE), Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Van Sant (Last Days), Von Trier (The Idiots)

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