Hors Satan (Outside Satan)

France (2011) Dir. Bruno Dumont

In the Côte d’Opale region of Southern France a lone drifter (David Dewaele) comes across a young girl (Alexandra Lematre) who is silently drawn to him and joins him in his taciturn but event filled meditations.

Bruno Dumont clearly has a lot to get off his chest, especially on the theme of religion, as we saw in the only film of his reviewed on this site Hadewijch. Unfortunately for many of us, Dumont’s style is direct and sometimes impenetrable often leaving he viewer confounded. By this, I mean that while it is nice that some directors don’t spoon feed the audience and allow them to make what they will of their work, Dumont doesn’t seem to be to keen on even meeting the audience halfway, simply presenting his films and leaves us to do all the work. This might be fun for some but for all, Dumont’s aspiration of making it to the mainstream is a long way off if Hors Satan is any indication.

Therefore it is vital to know beforehand that Dumont’s intent with this film is discuss the possibility of evil and good being both side of one person, rather than two separate forces opposing one another. Much like Tarkovsky’s celebrated opus The Mirror, knowing this important but non-submitted piece of information in advance makes the film much easier to understand and appreciate – otherwise one could be forgiven for thinking this was about the ambiguous adventures of a schizophrenic hobo.

Our nameless protagonist/antagonist literally wanders into the life of the tearful androgynous girl outside a farm. Without a word she takes his outstretched hand and they walk off together. Later they return to the farm, the drifter armed with a rifle with which a shoots a man dead. It is not until later we learn this was the girl’s stepfather who had been abusing her, and her mother (Valérie Mestdagh) knew but did nothing about it. The enigmatic newcomer seems to offer hope and salvation for the girl and she wiling joins him on a daily basis for a tacit prayer session by the river. To what or whom they are praying we never find out but it clearly works at least for one of them, especially after committing an act of raw, unbridled violence that shocks the girl but the drifter shrugs off.

Along with being very slow and full of lingering shots of the more downtrodden side of rural France, this film is unflinching in its depiction of the dual sides of our nameless lead player. Animal lovers will find a couple of scenes objectionable (I’m amazed one in particular got past the BBFC) but within the context of Dumont’s essay on good vs evil one is left open to assume there is a (divine) method to his madness. The religious parallels are subtle but not oblivious; the drifter is considered by some to possess some kind of mystic healing powers and is called upon by one distraught mother (Sonia Barthélémy) to heal her sick daughter (Juliette Bacquet). Meanwhile the girl is finding herself under the spell of this enigmatic wanderer but despite having a fairly tactile relationship, it never gets physical as she wants it to. Is he doing her a favour by keeping things platonic or is he resisting temptation? Does this explain then his violent reaction to a local park guard (Christophe Bon) making advances towards the girl?

To keep the pretence of the drifter being the sole physical representation of the two sides of man’s moral polar opposites, his facial expression seldom changes throughout the film, regardless of the situation. Whether he has just had his daily prayer or just caved in the skull of some poor sinner, he continues to sport the same dispassionate and often distant look that not even his eyes are willing to betray with his true feelings. Sadly actor David Dewaele passed away in February 2013 but in this, his final role, one can see him carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders inside but not letting on to anyone his burden. He doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue, most of his verbiage limited to terse one liners of philosophical instruction. He is neither physically imposing or outstanding but he remains the focal point of the film, which one can surmise is Dumont suggesting that the messiah/antichrist can come in the form of the most unassuming person.

Dumont keeps his policy of using largely unprofessional actors for his cast alive here, creating a palpable naturalness in both aesthetic and performance to match the unglamorous, ordinary looking yet oddly picturesque locale of the Côte d’Opale. To their credit the actors equip themselves well, with Alexandra Lematre who shares the most screen time with Dewaele making an impressive account for herself. If the subject matter and style of filmmaking is any indication, Dumont could be assumed to be a hard task master and in her debut (and so far only) film role Lematre is certainly put through her paces and makes her work some challenging scenes.

In Hors Satan we have a film that is bold in its valid and intriguing meditation and is rewarding for the most patient viewer with a taste for oblique arthouse cinema. Unfortunately it is this approach that is part of its undoing, preventing many people from immersing themselves in the story through a meandering tempo and disjointed narrative. Brave, challenging but perhaps a tad too esoteric for its own good while possesses an oddly engaging hold on the viewer.