Dumont’s new film addresses the mystery of modern horror

Killings and miracles occur in Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan (Outside Satan), a movie that puzzles at evil and good. It opens at the perfect time for a culture still reeling from the shock of the Newtown grade school massacre as pundits, politicians and a gullible public seek new legislations to stave off their sense of helplessness rather than deal with unanswerable questions of good and evil.

hors-satanThose questions have always marked Dumont’s filmmaking from his 1997 debut The Life of Jesus to his near-great features Humanitie and the recent Hadwijch. In Hors Satan, a man and young woman (David Dewaele, Alexandra Lematre) in a rural French town observe or take part in several executions and phenomenal events. Each one has the usual Dumont look of unglamorous, desperate realism: She’s pale and buck-toothed and he looks like a pre-saintly peasant from Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew; his crude, rough-hewn humanity emanating from a severe, unsophisticated society.

With cinematographer Yves Cape, Dumot photographs the characters in a harsh, unpitying brightness, like Bergman’s Winter Light only in summer accompanied by the vibrant noises of awakened nature. Dewaele’s  man suggests a strangely vain ascetic. Among the cast of taciturn people with brutish faces, he could be the personification of good or evil (or our collective unconscious–looking outside satan to consider our own potentialities). That uncertainty powers the film’s vision of the world. In cold, saturated colors, Dumont depicts nature’s wild, unwelcoming, ungraspable aspects (like Minnelli’s Big Sur pantheism in The Sandpiper) in which human beings struggle to find comfort and companionship. That difficulty keeps Hors Satan fascinating.

Is this a treatise on affectless mass killers as Alain Tanner’s Messidor was? Or does Dumont employ Bresson-style cinematic rigor (gnomic gestures, isolated motions) in images of bread given from doorways, a hand stretched out to guide another? Dumont’s unsentimental coldness is bracing after the violent hysteria that swamps most movies and TV programs. The remarkable scene of Dewaele roughly fornicating with a startlingly voluptuous female hitchhiker (Aurore Broutin) recalls the sexual frankness of The Life of Jesus and Humanite yet a mystical denouement takes the scene beyond sex. It teases the titillation that has become routine in entertainment and contemporary news media that simplifies morality into fiends and heroes.

Dumont’s is the kind of filmmaking most lacking in the era of gun-control piety. He does the work of art, the Lord’s work. As an art film, Hors Satan remains unsettling despite its formally pleasing rectangular imagery–its vistas are contemplated, not contrived with f/x artifice like Carlos Reygadas’ pseudo-mystical Stellet Licht. One obscured action is followed by a sunburst through trees, a close-up of a man’s beaten face with blood streaming down his features like Roualt outlines. This powerful sequence captures the profound profanity of violence.

When the girl speaks of a police investigation (“They’re making headway. They know how to go about it.”), she addresses “process” the myth of Fincher era films that normalize the sense of mystery that inspires Dumont; mystery, enigma define his approach to the ineffable. The girl and man’s heads-bowed, palms-cradled meditation while overlooking the thorny landscape, suggests faith/religion without guidance. The entire film seeks divine revelation without exactly providing it. That’s what makes Hors Satan so modern and so captivating.

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