Set in the Côte d'Opale region of Southern France close to a river and marshland, an enigmatic loner referred to only as “The Guy” (David Dewaele) stays alive by poaching and building fires. A girl from a nearby hamlet also unnamed and known as “The Girl” (Alexandra Lematre) is drawn to him, feeds him, and provides companionship and they go on long walks together. Controversial French director Bruno Dumont’s latest film, Hors Satan, is a puzzling, excruciatingly slow meditation on the nature of good and evil and whether Christ and Satan could be two sides of the same coin. As the film opens, The Guy and The Girl meditate together in the open fields and pray together at the edge of the ponds, though it is not clear to whom they are praying.
There is no physical relationship, though The Girl seems to want it. There is little dialogue and the only sounds we hear are the ambient sounds of nature. The Girl follows The Guy without question and doesn’t raise an eyebrow when he kills her stepfather whom she claims is tormenting her. “He won’t ever bother you again,” he says. The police investigate but no one is arrested and the couple remains emotionally detached from what is going on. The Guy’s actions are morally ambiguous. Presumably to enhance their redemption, he clubs animals to death and severely beats a guard (Christophe Bon) who wants to get close to The Girl.
He is also a healer, however, as demonstrated when he restores a catatonic girl to life, but a grotesque sex scene with a camper borders on the unwatchable and raises more troubling questions about who he really is.
While no meaning is attached to events, the film appears to be saying that good and evil are not mutually exclusive, that one can contain the other but its meaning seems muddled. The Guy may be Christ who has returned as a lion rather than a lamb, or then again, he may be Satan, or a combination of the two. Dumont’s premise follows the tenets of religious orthodoxy postulating the existence of the Devil, but what he really seems to be asking is whether or not the end ever justifies the means. In other words, does it matter what kind of methods you use if a desirable result is achieved? Apparently The Guy does not think it does.
While Hors Satan contains many biblical allusions such as walking-on-water and resurrection and speaks the language of metaphysics, the film is hardly a spiritual experience. In Carl Dreyer’s Ordet and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light take on similar material, there is beauty, poetry, and humanity, significantly absent in this often violent film. Dumont once told an interviewer that “you don’t have to be civilized in the movies, only when you come out of the theater,” and said that “to be civilized you have to have the experience of barbarism.”
Although the film falls short of barbarism, it is mostly an unpleasant experience with scenes of in-your-face ugliness, and I didn’t feel any more civilized when I came out. Dumont says that his films are a slap in the face to get the audience to wake up. While this is a commendable goal, judging from the response of the sparse audience in the showing I attended where half of the audience walked out and the other half fell asleep, it seems as if the viewers may have failed to get the message. Dumont once said, “I'm not indifferent to the public. I will end up being a filmmaker for big audiences, I may be 70 by that time, but I will get there." If Hors Satan is any indication, he may get there, but it won’t be in this lifetime.
©2011 Howard Schumann
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