Hors Satan is the sixth feature film by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Dumont’s previous films were mostly shot in rural landscapes, often in his native country, and featured marginalised characters undergoing both extreme trauma and spiritual transformation. He has a particular directing style, using long takes and razor sharp visuals to bring his worlds to life. Comparisons could be made with Robert Bresson and Michael Haneke but this would not do justice to his singularity. There are few people working in cinema today who can conjure up the ethereal atmosphere that Dumont can.
David Dewaele, a Dumont regular, plays ‘The Guy’, a mystical man who roams the wild coastline of Northern France. This is an otherworldly being that the local community reveres and looks to for support. When one of their children is ill, they seek his healing powers, and in turn he collects food from them daily. His only real relationship seems to be with ‘The Girl’, a gothic, troubled teenager played by Alexandra Lemâtre. Dumont hints at domestic unrest in her family; hints of abuse from her stepfather. She confides her problem to him, and he takes matter into his own hands. A clinical shot to the chest as her stepfather steps out of his barn.
This action sets off a chain of violent retribution, but it would be foolish to mistake this film for a typical lovers- on-a- killing- spree yarn. For one, their relationship is strangely sexless. ‘The Guy’ rebukes her longing advances, and his only dalliances with the fairer sex are purely spiritual. When a local girl is deathly ill, he revives her through sex. Yes, it sounds absurd on paper, but Dumont makes it work. The violence is also far from sensational, appearing at infrequent moments and devoid of any cinematic relish. Instead, the duo wander the wilds of the countryside, dwelling in sunlight and gentle breeze. ‘The Guy’ seems to be completely at one with his surroundings, indifferent to ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but what exists before him.
Hors Satan, like Dumont’s previous work, is not for the restless viewer. It is full of long close ups of the two characters gazing into the landscape, little dialogue, and with banal meaning. There are few ‘events’ for the audience to grapple onto, Dumont allowing the landscape to almost flow through the viewer. Dumont uses a mixture of wide angle shots and close ups, and there is no sound editor to prettify the sounds of the coastline. Every footstep, every whistle of the wind, can be heard vividly on screen. These are important choices, allowing the audience to be completely immersed in the environment, beguiled by its beauty and indifference.
One film it is sometimes reminiscent of is Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It too features a couple too dysfunctional to operate in civilised society and finding comfort in the unbounded freedom that nature offers. There is a distinct parallel in Dumont and Malick’s thought processes as well; both seek to draw the viewer’s attention to nature and its power over mankind, using the sensory capabilities of cinema to express this idea. Like Badlands, Dumont’s film leaves us with more questions than answers but is similarly exhilarating. Although Dumont is an atheist, there are constant hints of spirituality and a higher power in his work, and Hors Satan continues in this vein. But perhaps for Dumont, it is the cinema that is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful.