January 16, 2013

FILM OF THE WEEK: Outside Satan

by Vadim Rizov

Outside Satan (Hors Satan)

Bruno Dumont's sixth feature Outside Satan (Hors Satan) premiered at Cannes in 2011 but only now arrives for a weeklong New York engagement. That's typical lag time for Dumont, whose divisive, unmarketable movies generally enter theaters slowly but surely a year or so after their premieres. "The deeper meaning and social commentary of [Life of Jesus] has been deflected by focussing on a handful of graphic sex scenes, sadly," an admirer defensively writes on the Wikipedia page for Dumont's 1997 debut, a claim broadly true of all his work. Life of Jesus established the standard components of A Film By Bruno Dumont: non-professional actors standing or walking blankly, committing acts of debased violence (often in muddy rural terrain) with little or no provocation, sometimes indulging in unpleasant consensual intercourse when not raping people, with ambiguously intended, heavily religious overtones.

The use of non-pros who evince little normal human emotion as they slog through "extreme" plots recalls Robert Bresson, whose similar use of amateur "models" produces an odd charge. Around these emotionless subjects, strange, deadly and dangerous events occur, and their non-expressiveness begins to seem like taciturn heroism, but Dumont's first-timers seem sullen or maybe lobotomized. His fifth feature Hadewijch was a notable change of pace: relocating to an urban area, favoring a 1.85:1 ratio instead of his then-standard widescreen, and featuring actual jokes. As if in better spirits because shooting in Paris rather than the grim rural hellholes he favors, Dumont made a surprisingly perky movie about a nun whose fervor is so great it earns her expulsion, leading to redirection of her holy urges into jihadist terrorism. In a spiritual vacuum, the purest of souls will embrace the most ardent option available regardless of its moral questionability; the idea is something like that, but leavened by expressive teenagers doing something like frolicking in the city.

Outside Satan

Outside Satan then represents a "return to form," quite literally in Dumont's re-embrace of widescreen. We're back in the French countryside, in Dumont's home area the Côte d'Opale. In the untilled field surrounding an unused lighthouse, a (naturally) unnamed man (David Dewaele) camps out, building himself fires and living off sandwiches from the small local community. To earn his keep, from time to time the man appears to perform something like exorcisms. His constant companion is an unnamed young girl (Alexandra Lemâtre). She keeps trying to make out with him, but he refuses her advances, saying "that's the way it is."

At one point, she observes "It's a nice day." Indeed it is: clear, sunny and blue, the country roads dry and easily navigable rather than the usual muddy squelch. If Outside Satan is a return to Dumont 1.0, it's not as oppressive as before. Atmospherically, the film retains at least a little of Hadewijch's tonal brightness despite the usual, casual killings, repellent intercourse, and rape (offscreen for once). The man conducts lengthy outdoor devotional prayers, kneeling at sunrise and staying put until midday. Few movies have devoted so much time to depicting silent religious devotion. The obscurity of the man's true status—fallen angel? tempting demon?—charges some of these shots with the desire to seek out clues, but Dumont is typically withholding.

Outside Satan At the climax (described here cryptically to avoid spoilers), Dewaele saves a young woman by a body of water. Bresson's Mouchette ends with the titular girl rolling down a slope and drowning herself out of sheer misery. In Hadewijch, a similarly dispirited teen is dragged out by Dewaele, unexpectedly restoring hope to a film that had seemingly run to its usual nihilistic end, subverting the allusion. A variant of this happens in Outside Satan, allowing Dumont to also quote Bresson twice in a row, but also himself. (He denies deliberately referencing Bresson, claiming "I only discovered Bresson late in my life and I really don’t care about him that much." (This seems implausible, however, since Dumont admits he's very interested in the work of Mouchette novelist Georges Bernanos.)

With its reshuffling of standard Dumont tropes, Outside Satan is very much a film for his disciples, which I'm decidedly not. His next film Camille Claudel 1915—which will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival next month—will be his first period film, his first biopic, and his first film starring not just a professional thespian but, in Juliette Binoche, a star. Is Outside Satan a farewell to his most-overworked motifs or just a placeholder until he can retreat back, away from convention? Stay tuned.

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Posted by ahillis at January 16, 2013 9:02 AM