In Bruno Dumont’s Flanders, war isn’t hell, it’s just an extension of our unarticulated, atavistic aggression. Like previous Dumont protagonists from Life of Jesus, L’Humanité, and Twentynine Palms, Belgian farmhand André Demester (Samuel Boidin) lives through a monotonous, nightmarish world that serves as a phantasmagoria of psychosexual humiliation and revenge fantasies. Openly cuckolded by village slut Barbe (Adelaïde Leroux), Demester soon joins the military and travels to the Middle East with more handsome rival suitor Blondel (Henry Cretel), where their identity-blurred company kills armed children, rapes a woman officer, shoots an innocent man, and ultimately pays for its misdeeds. Meanwhile, back home, Barbe aborts Blondel’s child and descends into temporary madness, possibly because she psychically senses Demester’s betrayal of Blondel during the fog of war.
Kubrickian in the tragic depths of misdirected machismo, Bressonian in Dumont’s steadfast reliance on static camera shots communicating muted, nearly expressionless angst, Flanders, last year’s Grand Prix winner at Cannes, is the strongest, most brutal distillation of the controversial French director’s aesthetic and thematic universe. It’s also a 100 percent improvement over Twentynine Palms, a facetious art-horror film that didn’t even have the guts to take itself seriously. Flanders instead is a return to the controlled moral environments of Life of Jesus and L’Humanité in which troglodytic men (Dumont is a genius at casting male visages, which tend toward the retarded and tender; his females are unfortunately less interesting — Barbe resembles a bored model) fail at nature, at sex, at goodness. The film’s anti-Iraq War material is beside the point — like Full Metal Jacket, only much better and more devastating, Flanders derives power from the despair and dehumanization it unforgettably limns and the transcendence it desperately holds out for.