Two-time Cannes Jury Prize winner Bruno Dumont (“Flanders,” “L’humanité“) returned to Cannes today with his latest head scratcher, “Hors Satan.” If Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life” was a bold exploration into human nature and the search in the universe for God, “Hors Satan” is the dumb, clumsy cousin to that film. Of course, interpretation is everything, but reading between the long static shots, minimal dialogue and brief bursts of “action,” Dumont seems to posit that sometimes evil/violence is a necessary corrective in a world where good and evil unfold at will, without anyone holding the scales that keep them balanced.
The rather simple film follows an unwashed drifter (David Dewaele) who sleeps in a makeshift lean-to outside a village in northern France. He forms a friendship with an unnamed girl (Alexandra Lematre) who looks like a ugly cross between Ellen Page and Noomi Rapace, complete with a baby face, black spiky hair and a hoodie. So, what happens? Well, not much really or rather, talking about the specifics would pretty much have us revealing the whole movie in a couple of sentences. But in broad strokes, the Guy spends his time mysteriously helping the folks of the village in exchange for food. Though how he’s come into their lives or what his exact relationship with anyone of them is, of course, left unexplained.
The film moves along with an agonizing pace. It almost plays like a parody of arthouse fims with the characters seemingly forever gazing into the distance and speaking elliptically to each other. Most of the film involves the Guy and the Girl walking. And then walking some more. And then standing. And then saying something to each other. Oh! There is one sequence where the Girl — who has an unrequited crush on the Guy — makes him a coffee with some baguette and then we get to watch him slowly eat it, as they both sit quietly and look out a rain spattered window. Thrilling. We will say this, the film is beautifully shot, the landscapes gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Yves Cape. But there is only so much of this we can take particularly when soundtracked mostly by blowing wind and the breathing to the two leads who must have been close mic-ed for the whole film.
Structurally, the film unfolds in a series of gradually changing patterns and rhythms with a fade to black occurring at the end of each “day” of the story of the film. There are bursts of violence, though nothing overly graphic, some truly bizarre scenes in which our Guy/Devil/Jesus/Littlest Hobo seems to perform a miracle or be possessed by something not of this world. But with Dumont’s clinical and yes, admittedly wholly unique approach, it’s hard to invest too much in anything that happens besides a curiosity just to see how it will all end. The film’s climactic series of events involving the Girl are fascinating, but not at all moving as they should be. With both actors apparently told to strip their face and body of anything resembling emotion, they bounce around the film like automatons plainly reciting Dumont’s words. And when there is emotion, it always seems tuned to a frequency just under hysteria. With no middle ground, the film is bipolar and tonal mess.
The walkouts for “Hors Satan” started at the half hour mark and continued to be peppered through the film right up until about 15 minutes from the end. A respectful, if unenthusiastic, applause greeted the film, most likely because Dumont and the cast happened to be in attendance. But “Hors Satan” is a slog. A capital P pretentious film that is made in the tradition and fabric of an arthouse film that seems dated and laughable. Certainly, someone of Dumont’s stature and experience doesn’t need to be treading water like this and his attempt to mix the unsavory with holy in the effort to create something profound seems immature at best. “Hors Satan” is devilishly dull. [D-]