Like Gaspar Noe with a colder, reptilian eye, or a brutalist Robert Bresson, Bruno Dumont cut a divide through contemporary cinematic circles with his first three features. That this swath is tiny and both his detractors and supporters fall largely within that camp we could label “serious cinephiles” is a shame (“Twentynine Palms” may be the best psychological thriller in recent memory), but understandable: Dumont’s is a singularly unpleasant body of work. But don’t think for a second that unpleasantness precludes magnificence. A critic once wrote of his own inability to climb onboard with (and therefore show much interest in) Dumont’s vision of a blank, empty humanity most often caught painfully rutting and rutted in an existence generally not far removed from the average wild beast. To each his own, but to allow a certain kind of species-bound egoism to deny a priori the validity of Dumont’s query, the idea that perhaps we’re not so far removed in aspect from the beast we eat for dinner or watch on “Planet Earth,” seems a touch naive, or at the very least close-minded. And whether you agree with this taciturn French filmmaker about humankind’s prospects as a species or not, the extreme dourness of his narratives undeniably make his rare moments of spiritual uplift all the more earned.
Dumont’s fourth film, “Flanders,” may be a war film, but even with the addition of tanks, helicopters, mortar fire, and weaponry, the milieu still feels uniquely his own, which is to say that of the rural lower class in France. He starts by watching (even at its most fluid moments, the filmmaker’s camera is nothing if not an observer, or perhaps more appropriately, an intruder) a love triangle play out amongst three youngsters in Flanders: slow, brooding Demester (Samuel Boidin, who also starred in “La vie de Jesus“), his girlfriend Barbe (an almost translucent Adelaide Leroux), and the handsome interloper, Blondel (Henri Cretel), who picks up Barbe after she fights with Demester in a pub. Both of the men have been assigned to the same unit in an ongoing war that rages in a land none of them know for reasons none of them can articulate. Their impending departure weighs heavily on the slow-build of tension amongst the three which the angelic Barbe seems almost able to deflect, but once the two boys are shipped off to a seemingly Middle-Eastern (most will reduce down to Iraq, but it might as well be some neverland-Algeria – a physical landscape for an abstract state of mind) country, atrocities and violence mount and the film grows simultaneously terrifying and sickening.
Abruptly intercut with the action on the battlefield are scenes of Barbe fighting her own battles – with loneliness, with her reputation as the town slut, with Blondel’s child growing in her womb, and, most compellingly, with the possibility that her increasing madness is caused by her ability to witness her suitors’ disturbing acts abroad. Delving too far into the plot mechanics of “Flanders” would be tantamount to giving away the shockingly scary ending of “Twentynine Palms,” in short ruinous; there’s nothing like watching a Dumont film the first time around for visceral, lasting jolts. It’s a cinema that’s almost unbearable to watch but that exists ecstatic in the mind long after viewing. Comparisons to Bresson are rife and easy given Dumont’s employment of nonprofessional actors, decidedly bleak, questioning outlook, and flashes of queasy spiritual bliss. But in some ways, and especially in “Flanders,” Dumont reminds me of no filmmaker as much as Stanley Kubrick, similarly masterful at cataloguing the myriad forces which impinge upon the stability of the human psyche. In that way, Dumont’s lingering shots of his protagonists’ blank expressions aren’t really attempts to delve into a roiling mental life, or allow us a space to imprint our own ideas of character, but rather to suggest that the high self-estimation mankind affords itself as a species is based on little more than falsity and wishful thinking. Pretty radical stuff, and the kind of investigation that deserves to be seen and debated.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]