Cannes Review: Bruno Dumont's 'Hors Satan' Is Devilishly Dull

by Kevin Jagernauth
May 16, 2011 6:25 AM
11 Comments
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Two-time Cannes Jury Prize winner Bruno Dumont ("Flanders," "L'humanité") returned to Cannes today with his latest head scratcher, "Hors Satan." If Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" was a bold exploration into human nature and the search in the universe for God, "Hors Satan" is the dumb, clumsy cousin to that film. Of course, interpretation is everything, but reading between the long static shots, minimal dialogue and brief bursts of "action," Dumont seems to posit that sometimes evil/violence is a necessary corrective in a world where good and evil unfold at will, without anyone holding the scales that keep them balanced.

The rather simple film follows an unwashed drifter (David Dewaele) who sleeps in a makeshift lean-to outside a village in northern France. He forms a friendship with an unnamed girl (Alexandra Lematre) who looks like a ugly cross between Ellen Page and Noomi Rapace, complete with a baby face, black spiky hair and a hoodie. So, what happens? Well, not much really or rather, talking about the specifics would pretty much have us revealing the whole movie in a couple of sentences. But in broad strokes, the Guy spends his time mysteriously helping the folks of the village in exchange for food. Though how he's come into their lives or what his exact relationship with anyone of them is, of course, left unexplained.

The film moves along with an agonizing pace. It almost plays like a parody of arthouse fims with the characters seemingly forever gazing into the distance and speaking elliptically to each other. Most of the film involves the Guy and the Girl walking. And then walking some more. And then standing. And then saying something to each other. Oh! There is one sequence where the Girl -- who has an unrequited crush on the Guy -- makes him a coffee with some baguette and then we get to watch him slowly eat it, as they both sit quietly and look out a rain spattered window. Thrilling. We will say this, the film is beautifully shot, the landscapes gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Yves Cape. But there is only so much of this we can take particularly when soundtracked mostly by blowing wind and the breathing to the two leads who must have been close mic-ed for the whole film.

Structurally, the film unfolds in a series of gradually changing patterns and rhythms with a fade to black occurring at the end of each "day" of the story of the film. There are bursts of violence, though nothing overly graphic, some truly bizarre scenes in which our Guy/Devil/Jesus/Littlest Hobo seems to perform a miracle or be possessed by something not of this world. But with Dumont's clinical and yes, admittedly wholly unique approach, it's hard to invest too much in anything that happens besides a curiosity just to see how it will all end. The film's climactic series of events involving the Girl are fascinating, but not at all moving as they should be. With both actors apparently told to strip their face and body of anything resembling emotion, they bounce around the film like automatons plainly reciting Dumont's words. And when there is emotion, it always seems tuned to a frequency just under hysteria. With no middle ground, the film is bipolar and tonal mess.

The walkouts for "Hors Satan" started at the half hour mark and continued to be peppered through the film right up until about 15 minutes from the end. A respectful, if unenthusiastic, applause greeted the film, most likely because Dumont and the cast happened to be in attendance. But "Hors Satan" is a slog. A capital P pretentious film that is made in the tradition and fabric of an arthouse film that seems dated and laughable. Certainly, someone of Dumont's stature and experience doesn't need to be treading water like this and his attempt to mix the unsavory with holy in the effort to create something profound seems immature at best. "Hors Satan" is devilishly dull. [D-]

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11 Comments

  • jkundra | June 17, 2012 7:59 AMReply

    A totally clueless review. I wouldn't know how to begin to respond to Mr. Jagernauth - any more than I'd be capable of describing colors to an individual who has been sightless from birth.

  • nipon | March 12, 2012 12:04 AMReply

    oh my god, dear kevin, i think you hate movies, i think you hate Pialat and pasolini
    your article is so poor and so out of the subject, yes the tempo of this masterpiece is slow and yes there is no bank robbery or nuclear blast, it's a film about mankind, you know the thing you too are deep deep down inside
    please keep learning about the real cinema dude !

  • Jon_B | September 18, 2011 8:43 AMReply

    I feel sorry for you, Kevin. You're clueless.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | May 20, 2011 2:52 AMReply

    Let me just say this, the one person who I managed to find who liked the film admitted it was boring as fuck. And they also interviewed Dumont who they revealed to be kind of a douche who thinks anything that isn't arthouse cinema, isn't worth talking about. This film is wilfully obtuse to no real discernable effect except to trump "mainstream" notions of filmmaking. Too bad Dumont doesn't bring anything new to the table.

  • AR | May 17, 2011 9:43 AMReply

    "Cool, next time I’ll just say “your mother” instead of..."
    What a douche!

  • zatopek | May 17, 2011 6:49 AMReply

    You're right that Dumont can be compared to Dardennes and Haneke in that sense that they're all indebted to Bresson, but I think it's wrong to say that Dumont is unsuccessful Haneke or Dardenne, because he's still aiming for a different target than either of those two.

    But either way, you didn't appreciate L'humanite or Twentynine Palms which I find powerful works, so clearly Dumont is not for you.

  • Christopher Bell | May 17, 2011 4:29 AMReply

    Cool, next time I'll just say "your mother" instead of actually stating an opinion and backing it up.

    As for one size fits all, check out reviews on "Uncle Boonme," "A Serbian Film," "The American," "Fast Five," and "Chloe" and try to argue that they all look at the films from the exact same angle.

  • zatopek | May 16, 2011 11:17 AMReply

    Flanders is the only weak Dumont film so far. He's not trying to "pretend to be Haneke or Dardenne" - you seem to have one-size-fits-all criteria for certain type of art house films after all.

  • Christopher Bell | May 16, 2011 9:50 AMReply

    I agree that there should not be a one-size-fits-all way to approach criticism; but I also don't think Kevin did that.

    Dumont has done this before - he's pretended like he's Haneke or Dardenne, feigned philosophical insight, and come out the other end with not only an excruciatingly dull film, but an empty one. He seems to still be unsure when to pull back on certain things and when to really dwell on others. While some of his ideas are good, he often falls into overly sentimental or narrative tricks (Flanders is chock full of them) that she should probably know better about by now.

    That said, I do very much enjoy "The Life of Jesus" and "Hadewijch," and the latter I was hoping to be a sort of return to form...

  • JD | May 16, 2011 8:34 AMReply

    Hasn't Bruno Dumont earned a more respectful review at this point in his career? If "dull" and "pretentious" is as deep as you're willing to go, do you really have any chance of appreciating anything Dumont has to offer? More importantly, if the film's challenges to conventional audience engagement are intentional -- as they always have been in previous Dumont films -- how can you use that as the basis for mocking derision? I don't mean any of this as a defense of the film (which I haven't seen), I'm just challenging this one-size-fits-all approach to film criticism. There really is no sense in reviewing a Dumont film like you'd review a conventional narrative film.

  • swell | May 16, 2011 7:22 AMReply

    "He forms a friendship with an unnamed girl (Alexandra Lematre) who looks like a ugly cross between Ellen Page and Noomi Rapace..."

    Jesus, its starting to become apparent just who the trouble writers at Playlist are. You just keep turning up the volume on being unnecessarily douchey while mistaking your dickishness for humor. Its not even clever clever dickishiness.

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