Fiercely ambiguous and probably provocative: Hors Satan

03 January 2013

Bruno Dumont's latest film is released in UK cinemas on Friday 4 January.

Even before he brandishes a shotgun and kills a man, there’s something very unsettling about the way David Dawaele carries himself through the frame in Hors Satan, French writer-director Bruno Dumont's typically restrained and ambiguous drama. Physically unassuming, Dawaele begins the film on his knees, hands folded and palms upward, though his humility and concentration are immediately offset by the arrogance contained in his roguishly handsome face. Indeed, as he struts in a denim jacket over the beautiful purity of France’s Opal Coast, his character recalls Killer Bob, the demon who possessed the murderer at the heart of David Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks.

Demon, killer, fiend. Officially nameless, Dawaele’s character seems to be a dangerous, homeless charmer, upon whom local, impressionable village resident Elle (Alexandra Lem√Ętre) is dependent. Able to beckon Elle with a weak, inaudible whistle, this blue-clad loner spurns her sexual advances but lets her use him as an emotional cushion and a spiritual guide, asking in turn only for his daily bread. Forty minutes into the film, we learn that the man he shot dead was Elle’s abusive step-father: “We did what had to be done,” he reassures her in one of only a few lines of dialogue in the film.

But perhaps there’s something else afoot. When he shoots a deer from an impossible distance and goes to bash its skull in, Elle tells him to stop: “You’re crazy!” she cries. Later, he confesses to having shot the animal by accident – was bringing the rock down upon its head an act of compassion? Similarly, when the police investigating Elle’s step-father’s murder seem to finally have caught up with him, we learn that his arrest was a result of a “complaint” (!) filed against him by the guard (Christophe Bon) whose face he previously bashed in with a stick.

Said scene, made all the more violent because of its Bressonian fragmentation – an image of a stick flying through frame, the sound of its impact, a shot of the victim’s bloody face, then the repeated sound of further hits – comes abruptly after Elle tells him the guard kissed her, thereby overstepping his own boundaries even after he has told Elle and her friend to stay off the land he guards. Is the violence dished out upon him a moral lesson of sorts? At any rate, its brutality seems to warrant more than a mere complaint; our anti-hero, meanwhile, walks off with a caution.

Dumont presents his world in a manner that resists easy interpretation or judgement. His insistent austerity makes the presence of religious evocations difficult to pin down. The miracle that ends the film seems at first to leap out at us, but in fact we’ve been primed for the impossible several times along the way: the whistling and the deer shooting already mentioned, but also those few shots of a bird somehow held fixed in the sky; the raging fire curtailed by Elle’s slow progression – a leap of faith in itself – across a bisected pond; the inexplicable horror of a neighbouring woman’s daughter seemingly cured by Dawaele’s stranger, who sucks the evil out of her like a scene from The Green Mile (1999); and that scene in which a female backpacker brazenly offers her body to him, only for her to be cleansed by the subsequent aggressive sex (it’d be laughable if it wasn’t so initially disturbing).

From its title upwards, Hors Satan (“outside satan”) is fiercely ambiguous and probably provocative, its incidents interpretable and troubling in equal measure, due to the matter-of-fact aesthetic. As with Dumont’s films in general, this is either a strength or a flaw according to taste. On the one hand, one might argue these provocations and their deadpan delivery are essential to Dumont’s status as French cinema’s enfant terrible; on the other, one could say the filmmaker has exhausted narrative possibilities for the things he has or thinks he has to say. Take it or leave it, at this point he seems unwilling or even unable to change, caught somewhere between presenting striking imagery and moments in an otherwise deliberately oblique fashion.

[Originally posted at Front Row Reviews on 14 March 2012.]