In FLANDRES, Bruno Dumont returns to the land of his childhood in northern France, the setting of his first two films LA VIE DE JESUS (1997) and L’HUMANITE (1998). Both of these films, as well as FLANDRES, won special Jury Prizes at Cannes. French provocateur Dumont’s last film TWENTYNINE PALMS (2004) was, by all accounts (including my own), an over-the-top, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock brutalizing of the viewers senses (in the same vein as Gaspar Noé’s IRREVERSIBLE (2002), another Cannes winner, but even more eviscerating).
Here Dumont raises his usual concerns about man's inhumanity to man, the complexity (pathology?) of the man-woman relationship and an inability to connect in a genuinely loving way, the animalistic nature of sex, the meaning of existence, and the randomness of evil. André Demester (Samuel Boidin), a brooding, frighteningly inarticulate young farmer (whose character makes an excellent case that Neolithic impulses remain ingrained in many of our actions) secretly loves Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) his childhood friend. Barbe’s emotional instability and sexual promiscuity apparently are exacerbated by Andrés inability to do much more than grunt during their coitus in the woods and offer her rides on his tractor (there’s also a hint, which remains undeveloped, that she “takes after” her deceased mother).
Dumont’s often breath-taking mastery of his characters’ nuanced emotions and expressions brings an immediacy to both his observational filmmaking and the viewers’ experience of the film as a sense of eavesdropping. The usual boundaries of time, place, and medium dissolve, and one forgets one is sitting in a theatre watching a movie. The characters’ reality becomes one’s own. This is a rare talent. Kubrick had it, as did Bresson, and occasionally Iñárritu. The fact, then, that Dumont elicits this caliber of fearless performances from nonprofessional actors is nothing short of astonishing.
In FLANDRES, Dumont extends his battleground of human psychology to an actual combat zone. The fact that war is hell and that it changes you is not a new theme, but by leaving the desert locale unnamed (it was filmed in Tunisia) and the enemy unspecified (although the site is clearly Middle Eastern, there is mention neither of Iraq nor of complicated geopolitics), Dumont economically tells a very personal story about war's atrocities on the frontlines and the concurrent emotional damage to loved ones at home.
Dumont is a difficult filmmaker. Don’t look for linear plotlines or explanations for characters’ behavior. His settings are austere and abrasive and his characters' actions are often vile. And yet I know that his is an important artistic vision––a desolate, despairing one, without doubt, but nonetheless, a voice crying out about the wilderness that is humankind, and our fate.
Dir/Scr: Bruno Dumont
France, 2006, 91 mins.
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