Dysfunctional love is in the air in Bruno Dumont's most poetically and spiritually opaque film to date.
Here are some questions which probably would’ve come up during the career of arch Belgian provocateur, Bruno Dumont: On La Vie De Jesus, ‘Why are those boys so violent and revolting?’; On L’Humanité, ‘Why is that rural beat cop levitating?’ On Twentynine Palms, ‘Why is that man howling like a wolf during sex?’; And on Hadewijch, ‘Why is that young nun embracing Islam?’
It’s this persistent recourse to 'why' that makes Dumont such a vital and necessary presence on the current cinematic landscape. With Hors Satan, his most poetically and spiritually opaque film to date, we’re invited to question every scene, every line of dialogue, every facial expression and every surprising, possibly random shift taken by the plot – if you can even call it a plot.
Actor David Dewaele steps into the dusty boots of an unnamed nomad who, it transpires, is also some kind of peasant sage. He kills and he saves, with his efforts dictated by the tentative want of a pasty goth girl (Alexandra Lemâtre) who sends him secret food parcels.
The pair tramp the majestic pastoral expanses of Northern France’s Opel Coast, their bond appearing to be nothing more than plutonic, but perhaps running deeper than romance or sex. Even though Dewaele doesn’t cut much of a muscular frame, there’s an Eastwood-like intensity to the passive, hair-trigger violence he administers to anyone who crosses his gal. Yet he’s also called upon as an exorcist and soothsayer, ridding the spiritual pestilence from a young girl’s soul with a disturbing mouth-to-mouth ritual.
Dumont appears entirely disinterested in basic continuity and tracing the social consequences of dramatic events, and that’s because his film is about formulating a credible set of moral questions relating to the actions of a man in possession of supernatural powers. He murders and mutilates, but in doing so is simply protecting his protector. What may look vile and unjust to a spectator is perhaps an act of unyielding kindness from the perspective of his charge. Who’s going to miss another sexually abusive park ranger or violent rustic patriarch?
Hors Satan is an investigation into the elastic nature of good and evil, possibly even suggesting that every supposedly sadistic act will have its fervent supporters. This notion of viewing extreme polar opposites as one and the same permeates the film as whole. The landscape shots, captured with the aid of supremely gifted cinematographer Yves Cape are often breathtaking.
The monumental Cinemascope vistas in which tiny figures traverse the verdant, rolling hills as the peachy twilight blisters up from the horizon could go toe-totoe with Malick in his pomp. Move in closer and that awesome beauty dissipates instantly. The squalid undergrowth feels dark and forbidding, that sense of boundless freedom now turned to claustrophobia and fear. And in that spirit, Hors Satan will likely divide audiences between lovers and haters.
Within Dumont’s back catalogue, it’s a film which feels tacitly connected to his contentious 2000 Cannes prize-winner, L’Humanité, in which a protracted, passionless murder investigation takes back seat to a impressionistic portrait of a man who may be some kind of deity.
If you’re a stickler for basic logic, this one will most likely infuriate. But if you’re interested in tackling questions pertaining to a higher power which are articulated in near-abstract terms, then you could do a lot worse than choose to worship at the altar of Dumont.
Bruno Dumont is nothing if not reliably contentious. And that’s why we love him.
Another investigation into the spiritual sublime which will split audiences down the middle. We think it’s kinda brilliant.
Not everyone will want to go back for more, but those who do will find rich rewards.