What exactly is Bruno Dumont trying to say in his latest thought provoking, head scratching, problematic, faith questioning, borderline sleep aid of a film?! Does the devil exist? If so - does the devil have redeemable qualities? Is he capable of helping out and doing good deeds? Are Jesus & the devil the same guy? Bruno Dumont is no stranger to PINNLAND EMPIRE. Besides my recent lengthy write-up of his quietly disturbing art house noir: L'Humanite, his name is often dropped in this blog alongside peers like Marina De Van & Bertrand Bonello as France's current generation of button pushing, thought provoking, sometimes disturbing, filmmakers who have the guts to make the kinda films that frighten us just as much as they enlighten us. What's so great about their work is that they don't just fuck with the viewer for the sake of fucking with the viewer or hit us with gut punching scenes over and over. In Hors Satan we get brutal sex scenes, the aftermath of a rape and a shotgun blast to the chest. But those moments are spread far apart from each other (as are most brutal scenes in Dumont's work) during the course of this soon-to-be boring & misunderstood masterpiece. When reading up on Hors Satan (from blogs to legitimate reviews written by critics I respect) Dreyer's name kept popping up. This makes sense as Hors Satan deals with faith, religion and the presence of God just like Dreyer's work (actually one key scene in the Hors Satan involves a character being brought back to life after they've been pronounced dead much like in Ordet). But Hors Satan seemed to tip its hat more to the style & ambiance of Robert Bresson & Maurice Pialat - from the title (Outside Satan) which is very reminiscent of the title to a Pialat film (Under The Sun Of Satan) to specific scenes and the dry mannerisms of the mostly non-professional actors which clearly draw from Bresson's work. In the opening shot of Hors Satan our main character extends his hand towards the female lead in a moment that could have very well been a deleted scene from L'argent. Hors Satan requires a special kind of analysis as its both very good and problematic. My initial reaction to it was not that much different than that of a recent Terrence Malick film - annoyance, joy, eye rolling and an overall heightened love of cinema.
When I think of Hors Satan I'm reminded of the ideas behind Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger (the devil in plainclothes) as well as The Usual Suspects with characters like Keyser Soze delivering lines like: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was proving he didn't exist". Now, I'm still of the belief that that line was mainly written just to sound "cool" without much thought put in to what it actually means. I mean seriously...huh? But there's something about that phrase that makes me think of the main character in Hors Satan. In the film we follow a mysterious drifter who takes up camp in a small rural French town. In the first half of the story he helps out a young teen girl (the film's female lead) that's being abused by her father (we never actually see the abuse but we're lead to believe that's what's going) and he also heals another young bedridden girl who appears to be possessed. None of the characters in the film have names and they have no back story. The mysterious drifter just kinda appears outta nowhere and starts to affect the lives of the people in town. At first we get the impression that he’s some sort or of angel or even Jesus in the form of an everyday man by the way he carries himself, along with the way the young teen girl follows him around (almost like a disciple) and the way the mother of the sick young girl blindly trusts him to heal her daughter. But as the film progresses we question the young Jesus-like drifter's methods of helping & healing to the point where we wonder if he’s the devil or some incarnation of evil? On one hand he’s a helpful soul but in other scenes he’s a viscous & violent man who kills without blinking an eye - he bashes one guys head in with a lead pipe in a scene that's reminiscent of the axe scene at the end of Bresson's L'Argent. In another scene he has extremely rough sex with a strange woman that borders on rape. I don't even know if its fair to call what they did sex. Whenever we see the drifter's dark side, no one else is around to witness it besides him & his victim. His "disciples", or, people in town who look to him as a healer, have no idea of his other side. Maybe Bruno Dumont is trying to say that sometimes we need an evil force to drive away another evil force. The sexual abuse of a young girl is an evil force and maybe simple prayer might not be strong enough to fight it off. Maybe sometimes we need to call upon evil to help us out...even if there are consequences.
Alexandre Lematre gives the best performance as the young disciple-like follower and kinda breaths new life back in to a character that’s been over explored to the point where it’s become a bit stale in cinema (“the abused teen”). She has a unique, naïve, wide-eyed look and unlike most people in Dumont’s films she doesn’t look painfully homely.
Unbelievable Truth (Hartley)
Hors Satan also has many similarities to Hal Hartley's feature film debut: Unbelievable Truth (another Bresson-inspired film). It’s more than obvious that the idea of the dark, mysterious stranger riding in to town to help is nothing new but both films deal with God, faith & redemption pretty heavily. Both films also show a young teenage girl infatuated with the dark mysterious main character. Hartley, who I feel has a spiritual connection to Bruno Dumont, throws around words like; Jesus, God, Priest & Faith all throughout the script along with subtle (and not-so subtle) religious symbols (see image above). The presence of Josh Hutton (the main character in Unbelievable Truth) is not that much different than the mysterious nameless main character in Hors Satan.
The Mirror (Tarkovsky) / Hors Satan
Ordet (Dreyer) / Hors Satan
I'm well aware that the general analaysis of this film is that the main character is supposed to be some extreme/abstract vision of Jesus (all the signs are there). But i think Bruno Dumont, a filmmaker with a background in philosophy, would be disappointed if we didn't question or see things from a different, over analyzed perspective. Personally, I just don't see Jesus Christ, no matter how radical, abstract or extreme hes portrayed, shooting someone in the chest with a shotgun, beating someones head in with a pipe (for no real reason) or having rough sex with a strange women. Hors Satan feels like a sympathetic look at the devil. I may be reaching or talking outta my ass but that's how I see things. After all - the devil was an angel. Maybe there's still some righteous qualities inside him and this film is showing him move from town to town, like Kane in kung-fu, helping the peoplea that Jesus hasn't got around too yet. Heavy-handed symbolism doesn't get you very far with me. I'm surprised at how much I liked elements of Hors Satan as much as I did because the heavy-handed symbolism is quite strong. In one scene Dumont kinda references the moment when Jesus walks on water and in another scene the mysterious drifter breaks a loaf of bread he’s given in half and eats it which to me clearly symbolizes the act of communion. I'm not much of a Bible thumper and I didn't pay attention in church when I was a kid yet I still managed to catch those moments. I'm sure people more versed in Christianity could find other religious symbols in the film that probably went over my head. Dumont's work has always at least hinted at religion but his last two films have really focused on the subject more than normal. Hadewijch (2009) tells the story of a young girl who gets pulled in to terrorism in the name God and in his latest film we find him questioning the role of both Jesus & the devil. The representation of men leaves a lot to be desired in Hors Satan. Bruno Dumont clearly has a fascination with rape and/or rough unsensual sex. Sometimes Dumont's representation of men in his work almost comes off like that of Valerie Solanas or some other demented feminist with a messed up perception of men. Is Bruno Dumont one of those guilty male feminists? Besides rape he just has an overall fascination with showing man's dark sexual side. In the 29 palms (2003) we see both main characters raped by a gang of thugs. In L'Humanite (1999) not only does the film center on the rape & murder of a young girl but all the sex scenes are rough and difficult to watch. In The Life Of Jesus (1996) a gang of boys sexually assault a woman. The last third of Hors Satan centers around the rape & murderer of yet another young girl and who's responsible for it. Instead of sex, Dumont directs scene of men ramming themselves inside women (almost as if they're stabbing with their penis). If you're familiar with Bruno Dumont's work then you know what to expect, although I still advise to approach with caution. If not, I dunno if this should be an introduction in to his cinema. The pacing may put some to sleep and the vagueness of all the characters may be frustrating to some. Fans of Michael Haneke's French films (specifically Time Of The Wolf & Code Unknown) as well as Bertrand Bonello's earlier films should get a lot from Hors Satan.