Hors Satan (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Produced by Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Brehat, Alexander Emmert and Murial Merlin; written and directed by Bruno Dumont; cinematography by Yves Cape; edited by Basile Belkhiri and Bruno Dumont; set decoration by Martin Dupont-Domenjoud; starring David Dewaele, Alexandra Lematre, Christian Bon, Juliet Bacquet, and Aurore Broutin. Color, 110 min., French dialogue with English subtitles. A New Yorker Films release.

Bruno Dumont has emerged as one of our most significant filmmakers, despite efforts to dismiss him—along with a number of important artists, including Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke, and others—as merely part of the New European Realism or somesuch, viewed by certain reviewers as an opportunistic new wave of continental directors who spice their works with sex and violence for the U.S. market. Would the mainstream U.S. audience sit still for a Dumont film, when there is all manner of rubbish at the theater next door and on the Internet? I suspect that Dumont, widely respected in France, is ignored primarily due to the anti-intellectualism pervading current U.S. film culture. His important second feature, L'Humanité (1999), brought Dumont some critical recognition, but many overlooked entirely his extraordinary debut, La Vie de Jesus (1997). Twentynine Palms (2003) brought mostly derision—here is Dumont, the clever pornographer. At this writing, I know of only one book on Dumont in English, mostly a collection of interviews.

With his long takes, interest in the metaphysical, and emphasis on hands, faces, and the human gesture, Dumont has been called the “new Bresson,” a comparison he categorically rejects, since Bresson is a Catholic believer and a filmmaker who manipulates with postproduction sound looping—something Dumont despises. Dumont is a nonbeliever interested in the representation of the sacred in art and the sacred as a constant obsession of humanity. Dumont strikes me as a traditional European humanist with a sensibility not too distant from that of the quattrocento, given his interest in the human face and body as locus of the sublime. Hors Satan (2011) contains his sparest script yet, with an emphasis instead on the body and its gestures, their conveyance of need, doubt, anxiety, and terror. His style is not nearly as austere (that tired word is always brought to bear, it seems) as that of Bresson, since his camera is fluid, his settings, especially in Hadewijch (2009) and Hors Satan, extraordinarily lush. At times his use of the beguiling landscape and the insulated small town creates a dialectic suggesting a battle between eros and repression—especially the case in La Vie de Jesus,L'Humanité, and Flanders.

Hors Satan makes astonishing use of the landscapes of Northeast France

Hors Satan makes astonishing use of the landscapes of Northeast France

Dumont’s interests have further marginalized him. Hadewijch received very scattered release in the United States and has yet to appear on a Region 1 DVD. Hors Satanwas released in 2011 and has long since appeared on a sumptuous DVD in France, but only in Spring 2013 began to be screened in this country at the Museum of the Moving Image, Anthology Film Archives, and at several universities. It will likely enjoy no larger audience until its DVD release in October (a U.K. Region 2 disc will appear in May). It is Dumont’s greatest achievement to date, one of the triumphs of the contemporary French cinema, and a testament to Dumont’s commitments as artist. A philosopher-turned-filmmaker anchored in German idealist thought, he pays homage to the human subject as generator of meaning and creativity, needing no origin in a deity. Dumont extols the beauty of the human, and the encompassing natural world, while also revealing contradictions therein, especially the monstrousness of manufactured society that destroys the erotic (he shares with Antonioni a concern for the “sickness of eros”), the terror inherent in eros, and the human urge to look for the transcendent.

The narrative of Hors Satan (which roughly translates as “outside Satan”) depends upon a device popular since antiquity, the Stranger from Nowhere, whose very presence is both disruptive and restorative to a vulnerable, repressed community—a fascination recurrent in the postwar cinema, including such varied films as ShanePicnicThe Fugitive Kind, and Teorema. One of Dumont’s nonprofessional actors, David Dewaele, plays the Stranger, listed in the credits simply as Le Gars (The Guy). His performance is remarkable, a compelling reason, alone, to see this film (sadly, Dewaele died at 37 this January). Dewaele had small roles in Dumont’s Flanders (2006) andHadewijch. In those films, made just a few years ago, Dewaele’s face seemed adolescent and unformed, his bad teeth prominent. As the Stranger, Dewaele has proverbial chiseled good looks, his weathered, mature features serving well his self-possessed, stoic character.

The Stranger lives behind the fragment of a brick building in a sand dune on the French Opal Coast. Most of Dumont’s films take place in Northeast France, and especially near Bailleul, the town of his birth, the landscapes of which are stunningly rendered by cinematographer Yves Cape, with whom Dumont has formed one of those notable director–photographer working partnerships. The Stranger subsists on donated food; in the first shot we see a hand knocking on a door, then filled with a sandwich by the hand of the resident—biblical tropes are invoked mainly to be subverted. The Stranger walks endlessly across the morning countryside, occasionally bowing his head or dropping to his knees. The gesture recurs many times in the film, motivated by the Stranger’s sudden encounter with the beauty of the natural world—in landscapes recalling Constable, Turner, and, at a particularly engrossing moment, Millet’s Angelus. While the upward gaze at a beautiful but empty sky is a common visual gesture in Dumont, there is no sense here of pursuit of solace from an Abrahamic god. If the film has any theology, it is pantheism, although one hesitates to apply any doctrine to Dumont. The film makes us focus principally on the assumptions of belief and the degree to which they are involved in the projection of the believer, as the Stranger takes on a messianic aspect.

He encounters a tall, distraught, punkish young woman with a face of pale radiance. Her cry for help, prompted by her abusive stepfather, produces the Stranger’s benevolent, outstretched hand as he walks toward her. The woman, listed in the credits as Elle (The Girl), played by Alexandra Lematre, is a presence as compelling as the Stranger’s. She waits by the wall of a massive octagonal lighthouse as the Stranger steps heroically into the right side of the frame, wielding a shotgun. They wait by the Girl’s farmhouse. The Stranger efficiently kills the stepfather from a distance as the camera then slowly tracks toward them as their faces turn, producing stunning, evocative portraiture that turns the moment contemplative—a key feature of Hors Satan.

The Stranger’s interventions are both wrathful and benevolent. He smashes the skull of the Girl’s predatory suitor, spitting on him contemptuously—the metaphysical is never distant from the ordinary. He then visits the home of a near-catatonic young woman, her mother pleading in despair. The Stranger gazes at length, leaves, then returns, kissing the young woman ferociously, producing dreadful noises that suggest her painful violation. But the woman comes around, as the mother, kissing the Stranger’s hand, bows in gratitude. In another apparent demonstration of power, the Stranger notes a huge brush fire. He tells the Girl to walk across a stone barrier separating two halves of a reservoir. She curses the Stranger but traverses the massive pond, collapsing angrily into his arms as he chuckles and turns her around to show that the fire has stopped. The moment recalls the early monologue in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), where Alexander speculates on the miraculous possibilities of the quotidian act.

The combination of killer and savior embodied in the Stranger makes it easy to assume that Dumont is engaged in a Nietzschean “beyond good and evil” exercise, but there is no evidence of such a dogmatic conceit. In an interview, Dumont remarks that he could have called the film Hors Dieu, “but one has to choose.” There are none of Nietzsche’s grand assertions here, and certainly none of his misogyny. The Girl is a partner and friend to the Stranger rather than a disciple. It is interesting that Dumont cast Lematre, several inches taller than Dewaele (downplaying the Stranger’s allure), but the presence of one actor never overwhelms that of the other (to be sure, Dewaele’s enigmatic, alternately soulful or doleful gaze constitutes the most compelling moments of recent cinema). The Stranger and the Girl have an authentic but platonic relationship. They walk across the Opal Coast’s open plains and through its forests and marshes, and romp playfully in the sand dunes near the Stranger’s sparse dwelling. When the Girl proposes sex, the Stranger gracefully begs off, the suggestion being that sex will ruin things. Later, when he has parted company with the Girl, the Stranger encounters a young female vagabond who momentarily accompanies him on his seemingly endless journey across the countryside. They stop to rest, the woman asking for sex. The Stranger consents and the woman promptly undresses. The act causes the woman to growl, foam at the mouth (the foam resembles semen), and tear at the turf. As often the case in Dumont, one’s attention focuses, I think, on the hand pulling at nature, as if falling into madness. When the Stranger departs, the nude woman dives into a pool, and emerges wide-eyed, as if transformed into a visionary.

Hors Satan, like Dumont’s earlier films, immediately provokes interrogation. Is the Stranger simply a lunatic beguiling local rubes (and us)? There is a hint that the Stranger may have set the brush fire that he somehow extinguishes, and his “healing of the sick” may be the inducement of one trauma to negate another. These acts may indicate a confidence man—his true nature might be revealed in the nonchalance of his violence. The film concludes with the Stranger removing a dead woman from her home, carrying her to the marshes with some exertion—suggesting the Stranger’s humanness—where he leaves her body. After righting another wrong, the Stranger proceeds down the road, accompanied by an abandoned dog. Meanwhile, the woman in the marshes “resurrects” (was she actually dead?) and runs home to her mother, who is aghast. We are therefore confronted with an out-an-out “miracle.” Dumont is interested less in having us “weigh the evidence” of what happened than in having us consider the belief systems involved here. They have inspired the extraordinary, often self-reflexive or confounding works of the quattrocento, but also the repression that is the sum and substance of religious doctrine.

Questions persist about Dumont’s gender politics. In Hors Satan, the spiritual is embodied in a charismatic, self-possessed, handsome man, who seems, by and large, in control of his faculties. In his preceding film, Hadewijch, the spiritual seeker is Celine (Julie Sokolowski), a young female hysteric easily gulled by any fellow loon who steps into view. But Dumont never belittles his characters: Celine in Hadewijch and the Stranger in Hors Satan, are both enticing yet fraught with complexities that bedevil the viewer. And Dumont’s interest in the ability of eros to thrive as a symbol of the spiritual always contains the oppression imposed by men—from men usually being “on top” in the sex act to men violating or obliterating the female. And, in at least one film, La Vie de Jesus, there seems little question that the sacred resides in Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) rather than the cruel Freddy (David Douche) and his pack of motor-biking idiots.

Hors Satan is a modest film that nevertheless brings to mind a most distinguished inheritance, at least on a fleeting, formal level. Donatello, Giotto, Bernini, Leonardo, and Bruegel were certainly doing more than merely investigating devotion in their staggering works, and their realized accomplishments, of course, leave Dumont far behind, but they share with Dumont what Paul Tillich called “matters of ultimate concern.” What Dumont shares with his predecessors is a degree of seriousness, a concern for the value of his project and its position within a tradition.

Christopher Sharrett is a professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine