Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during the Cannes Film Festival. "Outside Satan" opens Thursday in limited release.
The prospects of a movie called "Outside Satan" ("Hors Satan"), directed by French provocateur Bruno Dumont, led to the anticipation of a twisted delight. True to form, Dumont – whose disquieting approach combines slow, understated exposition with subversive themes – has not abandoned his interests. The problem with "Outside Satan" is that the filmmaker has remained faithful to expectations without enlivening them. It's a curious exercise unworthy of his expertise, but then he may realize as much.
Without music or much in the way of dialogue, Dumont allows his bare-bones plot to drift along. A teenage farm girl (Alexandra Lematre) spends her days hanging out with a mysterious older hermit (David Dewaele, also the enticing male lead of Dumont's last feature, the decidedly more rewarding "Hadewijch"), who apparently lives in the woods near her house in a rural area of northern France. His origins are ambiguous, but the girl appears drawn to his mystique and the sense of danger accompanying it. He wanders around the barren landscape with a shotgun, lazily shooting game, and his younger companion can't keep her eyes off him. That's literally the majority of the set-up, as Dumont draws out the nearly two-hour running time with empty vistas and supreme inaction.
The lack of names for these characters would underscore their symbolic stature if Dumont had something interesting to say with them. However, even as "Outside Satan" introduces a vague supernatural component, implying the man's diabolical roots while shrouding his agenda, it lacks any serious investment. More sketch than narrative, it toys with interesting ideas about the lure of rebellion by positioning evil as its ultimate expression, but never reaches a point where they solidify.
Eventually, Dumont nudges forward with a series of inexplicable events. The man kills a deer with his bare hands, then later applies the same method to an innocent young man. Later, the man applies a quizzical healing power to an ailing young girl, using a power emanating from his mouth. It's an unnervingly physical scene, as are several others, and yet Dumont still can't find the right ingredients to make these scenes gel together.
After two murders, a lurid sex scene and one very puzzling resurrection, Dumont does little to resolve any questions or even deepen his enigmatic vision. The atmosphere is resolutely bland, which keeps the movie down from the start and relentlessly smothers it. Dumont comes up for air only with the aforementioned random events. They're outlandish as hell, but to what end? It's never clear if the man at the center of "Outside Satan" represents an ungodly creature from beyond or some manifestation of otherworldly powers. With its creepy premise, the movie acknowledges the greater depths of frightening discomfort that the director has probed before, but overall the project just feels like a devilish lark.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Dumont's cult appeal in the U.S. is far too small for the movie to leave much of a dent in theaters.
criticWIRE grade: C+