Directed by Bruno Dumont
God v. Satan: the oldest conflict, yet one prone to the most reductive dramatic representations. Bruno Dumont, however, keeps consistently clear of facile Manichaeism: with Hors Satan (“Outside Satan”), the stylistically ascetic, brutally confrontational, and theology-obsessed French director depicts the deity and the devil as dually incarnate in a man (David Dewaele)—or messiah—who visits both righteous miracles and malicious wrath upon the citizens of a rural Normandy village. His reasons for so doing remain mysterious; Dumont’s reasons for sustaining this mystery become increasingly poignant.
Dewaele’s unnamed drifter sleeps in the open air on the outskirts of town while being fed on the sly by a pasty (and also unnamed) goth girl (Alexandra Lemâtre); he repays this generosity by offing her abusive stepfather with a shotgun and staunching a forest fire by mere command. But taciturn Dewaele goes far beyond righting wrongs, making pulp of a local guard (Christophe Bon) who declares his affection for Lemâtre, and inducing seizures in—and nearly choking to death—a hitchhiker (Aurore Boutin) just looking for an easy lay. Even Dewaele’s accidental shooting of a deer appears to be a consequence of his natural propensity for destruction.
Dumont imposes further ambiguity on the film's visual and sonic environments. His style is typically described as “Bressonian,” but there are long takes here—especially those featuring characters disappearing down dreary roads, desolate fields, and mournful dunes—that move well beyond his spiritual mentor’s clipped, exacting rhythms. Evoking a depressed and desiccated languor (the film’s ambient sound design has every shoe-crunch and leaf-rustle assume metaphysical enormity), Dumont startles the audience with intermittent bursts of tenderness and violence, from the unexplained cupped-handed, sky-worshipping meditations of Dewaele and Lemâtre to the halo-like nebula of the sun shining through a forest where a bloodied man gasps for breath. Realized by cinematographer Yves Cape, Dumont’s firm, minimal compositions suggest the world as a blank slate upon which the divine or the diabolical can all too easily leave their marks.
Of course, the above-mentioned moments will likely be taken for granted by those already familiar with Dumont, who’s been creating good-within-evil/spectacular-within-mundane allegories in this vein since 1997’s The Life of Jesus. Does Hors Satan add anything to the director’s preoccupations? After a loose trilogy in response to the “war on terror” (Twentynine Palms, Flanders, Hadewijch), the new film signals a return to the universal resonances of early films like Jesus and Humanité. In this light the nearly expressionless acting that Dumont fosters in his performers comes across as even flatter in Hors Satan, the refusal to render judgment on Dewaele even more oblique and unsettling than parallel anti-resolutions in recent efforts. The last point actually deserves qualification: a concluding miracle feels somewhat unearned, as if Dumont were balancing the overwhelming pessimism of his last decade of work with a contrived and derivative attempt at redemption. (The iconography is straight out of Ordet.) Nonetheless: Hors Satan is that rare study of opposed yet inextricable moral forces that is enlivened rather than over-whelmed by insoluble, eternal struggle.
Opens January 18