Crabs are known for their wayward way of walking: one step forward, two back. French auteur Bruno Dumont does the same with Hors Satan, taking a step back on the heels of the complex and assured Hadewijch. Again dealing with faith, Mr. Dumont follows the aimless days of a mysterious homeless wanderer (David Dewaele) in the French provinces, and the uneasy relationship built up between him and a local abused girl (Alexandra Lemâtre).

     It's very clear that the director is aiming at a Christ allegory, emphasized by the absence of names for any of the characters, as well as the constant communion with nature both characters feel through their long walks through the countryside (with the exception of four interior scenes, the entire film takes place outdoors). But Mr. Dumont likes to throw spanners into the machine and, in this case, this Christ figure doesn't shy from criminal acts: he refuses the come-on attentions of the girl, but stops at nothing to murder and rape those that stand on his and their way.

     But could there be a method to this madness? This being a Bruno Dumont film, you suspect so, though the director enjoys covering up its tracks through the deliberately detached, arid handling, its minimalism definitively influenced by the mystical austerity of Robert Bresson or Carl Th. Dreyer. In fact, the non-professional cast's wonderfully inexpressive performances are Bressonian to a T, figures in a beautifully shot landscape stuck in a vague, almost non-existant plot that suggests occasionally a bleakly twisted romantic comedy of unrequited attractions or a surreal serial-killer film.

     It's none of this, of course: merely a painstakingly realised abstract, a meditation on faith and transcendence that seems to underline the amount of work and toil that faith demands (see the exquisite sound design of breathing, struggling people in nature), but one that Mr. Dumont renders so stilted and opaque that it becomes a slog to wade through it. That may have been the director's intention all along, in which case it is a rousing success. You can't help but think that Mr. Dumont is basically thinking out loud rather than having an idea where his path is heading; fascinating as it can be, theoretically, it doesn't make it artistically engrossing, and there is a sense that he may be treading water after the more focussed and unnerving Hadewijch.

Starring David Dewaele, Alexandra Lemâtre; Christophe Bon, Juliette Bocquet, Aurore Broutin, Sonia Barthélémy, Valérie Mestdagh, Dominique Caffier

Director/writer: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Yves Cape (colour, widescreen)
Costumes: Alexandra Charles
Editors: Mr. Dumont, Basile Belkhiri
Production: 3B Productions, in co-production with CRRAV Nord Pas-de-Calais and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains, in association with Cinemage 5
France, 2011, 109 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, July 28th 2012


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