A man’s rough fist lightly raps on a door in the dawn’s light. The wood door appears charcoal black and the wall framing it a brilliant dark blue in the expressionistic light. The door opens a crack and a white hand passes out a couple of slices of bread wrapped in a napkin. This is how director Bruno Dumont establishes the homeless psychopath who may have mystical powers in Hors Satan (Outside Satan). Only known as “the guy” (le gars) by the film’s end credits, David Dewaele plays the character with down-to-earth, subtle charm. It’s just as well, as this guy may be the devil incarnate or possibly the messiah. The actions that slowly unfold afterward are both extreme and conflicting, so Dumont never spells it out and leaves the viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions.
Hors Satan is an art film in an almost classical art film sense. The dialogue is very spare and its message, if it has one, might seem opaque to the impatient viewer. The actions of the characters are often unexplained and lead to more questions than answers. Early in the film, the guy and a young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre, credited as “she”) are established as close, though not necessarily romantic. He has a crooked, craggy face and a relaxed gait, she has a sunken white face and a stiff stride. As these characters remain unnamed, it is up to the astute viewer to figure out who these people are by their slightest actions, and it is noticing such tiny details like how they carry themselves that will bring some semblance of relevance to the extreme acts that will follow, including cold-blooded murder, brutal beatings on man and animal alike, and an “exorcism” or two.
I place the word exorcism in quotations, as the film never offers anything concrete that these are indeed moments of exorcism. The film is more a string of details that are never over-emphasized. There is literally a tiny detail in the film that establishes this world as existing in a place that defies normal logic. On more than one occasion a bird can be heard frantically chirping. The guy looks up to the sky and stares. A tiny black dot, flapping its wings seems stuck up there. Maybe it is in the distance and too far to notice in motion, but I doubt that was the case. Could it be a hallucination? Yet the bird is so tiny what would it matter? What does it matter that the ambiguous protagonist is the only one who notices it?
And so the film reveals more questions than answers. Early in Hors Satan, the film’s crooked hero does something extreme that throws all sorts of questions into the mix. What happens is shocking, but what matters are the questions that inform the dynamic of these characters. Some viewers might feel hooked by the film’s intriguing, if extreme, moments while others might feel frustrated by them.
Dumont enhances the mystery of the film in his choice to not include any music whatsoever. The only music is that of the chirping bird. Otherwise, the film has no mood set by music, save for the wind and crashing waves. No one even turns on a radio to offer insight into their musical tastes. Though she wears tiny ear buds sometimes, one can only guess what she is listening to (probably the Cure, or maybe even Swans). There is also no musical theme during the opening and closing credits of the film. Nature dominates Hors Satan‘s soundtrack.
Nature also fills the film’s frames with vegetation, water and earth. These characters remain so elusive, that their time wandering the northern coastal landscape of France transcends them. Hence, the terrain becomes the strongest character in the film. The shadows that cross the land plainly symbolize the shadowy character at the film’s heart. The guy enters into the brush ahead of moments of his extreme behavior. During his only scene indoors, he stares out the window, always connected to the land. Indeed, the land seems to be his temple, as he kneels down on the ground, his hands cupped in his lap, in some strange form of prayer on more than one occasion. Frequently, the couple walks out into the land and they are shown as a pair of tiny black figures crossing through the hilly and sandy grasslands where much of the film takes place. A strange tower also figures into the land. It surely serves as a practical purpose in the farmlands, but shown fleetingly and seeming to produce a rifle for the man to use, it becomes mystical. There is another point when the land turns ablaze with fire, setting up another moment that reveals the magical-realist world of the film.
Dumont scatters these moments enough in the film that he seems more concerned with the humanity that informs the acts involving the guy, mundane or magical. In the end, the film ends on a hopeful, if still ambiguous note. Having dwelt on morality and extreme behavior involving rape and murder in his early films, Dumont seems to have taken his concerns to another level, concerning himself, if somewhat ambiguously, with religious overtones (see his previous film, 2009’s Hadewijch). Hors Satan reveals a concern with the earthly moment of man’s interaction with the weight of infinite and eternal questions brought into society by religion. But look to the land, which has produced all sorts of artifacts B.C. of once long-reigning societies with other beliefs. In the end, this film seems to point out, no matter how long the fleeting moment lasts for man on earth, the planet will continue spinning in the universe, in no matter what state it finds itself in, either burnt out or lush and green.
Rumination of such sublime ideas are channeled by great pieces of art, and Hors Satan ranks among the better movies of the year for that reason. As loose as it seems, the film will wind up haunting you days after initial viewing. Dumont does not cram ideas down the viewer’s proverbial throat. Instead, like the best art films, he stimulates the intellect of the viewer to come to his or her own revelation.
Hors Satan is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It plays exclusively in South Florida for two nights only: Tuesday, Sept. 4 and Wednesday Sept. 5, both at 8:30 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of the theater’s “Cinephile’s Choice” series. The Miami Beach Cinematheque loaned me a screener DVD for the purposes of this review. New Yorker Films, the distributor, has planned a theatrical release in 2013. If you are outside South Florida, bookmark New Yorker’s website, as you might have to wait until then to see it or catch it at select film festivals.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)