Bruno Dumont’s “Hors Satan” (Apart from Satan) is ascetic, enigmatic, intermittently violent, and mildly revelatory. Dumont ran off the rails so long ago it seemed that this theologically minded, monumentally self-important Bressonian brutalist would never return to the bizarre vérité mysticism of his first two features but, he has.
A onetime philosophy professor and self-described atheist, the 54-year-old filmmaker burst upon the festival scene in the waning years of the 20th century as a full blown stylist. “Life of Jesus” (1997) was a startlingly contemplative view of youthful shenanigans in an emptied out Normandy village. Even more outrageously deadpan in illustrating what Karl Marx termed “the idiocy of rural life,” the visually grandiose, confidently absurd, police procedural “Humanité” struck many people as some kind of great movie. Dumont struck out with his US-set “Twentynine Palms” (2003), hit bottom with his abstract war film “Flandres” (2006), and recouped slightly with a wacky meditation on faith and terrorism, a contemporary tale titled “Hadewijch” (2009) after a 13th century poetess and religious mystic.
Opening this Friday (January 18) for a ten-day run at Anthology Film Archives, “Hors Satan” brings it back home, albeit to a new location. Two photogenic presences (stoical David Dewaele, who had a small but similar role in “Hadewijch,” and non-actor Alexandra Lematre) tramp silently around the beautifully photographed dunes and marshes of the Côte d’Opale in northwest Normandy, abruptly kneeling in prayer and engaging in other strange rituals. The Guy (as he is identified in the movie’s credits) is a scruffy yet surprisingly groomed vagrant; The Girl (as she’s called) is a pallid, black-clad, goth angel. The two have a matching absence of affect and complementary hairstyles — his slicked back, hers spiked up.
Most likely the filmmaker’s projection, The Guy is both a healer and an avenger — beyond good and evil. Early in the movie he coolly dispatches The Girl’s abusive stepfather with a single rifle shot. His effect on women, though no less convulsive, is more benign (and includes one of Dumont’s trademark, unbearable sex acts). The Guy also works the occasional miracle by proxy. When the fields are on fire, he persuades the fearful Girl to walk a narrow barrier across the water — conflating two of the movie’s Biblical motifs — and the smoke subsides. The Guy sleeps outdoors, is at one with nature, and can commune with animals, as when he answers a laconic dog summons.
Solemnly stylized to the brink of self-parody, “Hors Satan” can at times suggest an unfunny Jim Jarmusch film. What keeps it honest is Dumont’s understated reverence for the landscape — the movie is shot in panoramic widescreen — and his newfound formal precision. There’s no music but the “live” audio mix, complete with stray rooster crows, the actors’ heavy breathing, and the wind rattling the mike is even more emphatic than his model Robert Bresson’s similarly deliberate sound design, particularly as amplified in counterpoint to the movie’s numerous long shots.
Whereas even Dumont’s best movies, “Life of Jesus” and “Humanité,” exuded a sense of belligerent time-wasting, “Hors Satan” is bracingly spare as its bleak, scrubby location. “’Hors Satan’ incarnates a primitive new world,” the filmmaker is quoted as explaining in the current issue of Sight and Sound. “It’s like a Walt Disney cartoon. You have modern mores and customs, but you’re in a magical, mythological place.” Call it a dramatized cave painting, a Stone Age parable, or another scene from the life of Jesus.
Images: New Yorker Films