We led our coverage of the 55th London Film Festival with a stark image from Hors Satan, so expectations for Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to the still unreleased (in the UK) Hadewijch were obviously rather high over here at Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second. We have long ran with the notion that Dumont is France’s finest contemporary filmmaker, with Flandres, L’humanité and La vie de Jésus amongst the most compelling and essential works of cinema produced over the last two decades. It’s the latter of those films, La vie de Jésus, Dumont’s debut that Hors Satan most closely resembles. This latest work is something of an ideal counterpart to the earlier film, with, obvious titular references aside, the two films sharing a tonal and thematic approach with each other.
Hors Satan opens with a knock at the door, in a refrain that is repeated and echoed throughout the film. The abrasive sound of hand on wood serves as something of a punctuation point for a film ground in silence, with much of the opening ten minutes taken up by the sight of the lead male figure (I’d hasten to use the term ‘protagonist’ to describe any of the characters in Hors Satan) journeying through the broad fields of the Côte d’Opale, a space on the verge of the English channel. The topography of the scenario is at the centre of attention for much of the film, with it ultimately being the films most important element. Notably this is the first of Dumont’s films not to be shot in and around the area of Flandres. It makes for a stunning and visual rich experience, with the aesthetics largely on their own in terms of traditional cinematic elements; there is no non-diegetic soundtrack for example, with only the hyperreal sounds of the landscape accompanying the sparse dialogue in terms of audible accompaniment. No one quite shoots broad landscapes in quite the same exacting manner as Dumont’s regular cinematographer, Yves Cape (who also shot last years Claire Denis drama White Material), with the results of their collaborations always thrillingly cinematic.
The film essentially serves as a lament on the battle between good and evil. A mysterious figure, who lives outside on the moors of the Côte, interacts with a young women from the village nearby. The pair meditate and wander across the vast open spaces, and oversee largely ambiguous events connected to the locales. As the man (credited only as “The Guy”) exacts a revenge for an implied wrongdoing upon the father of the girl (quite literally known only as “The Girl”) things take something of an about turn, as the hyperreal, heightened nature of the drama takes something of a spiritual, almost fairy-tale infused spin. Later events, such as the beating of a figure referred to as “The Guard”, who may or may not be a spiritual Christ-like counterpart to the Satan of “The Guy”, and the bringing back to life of one previously dead character expel any earlier assumptions completely. Ambiguity leads the work in almost every aspect. The structure is as ambiguous as the morality of the characters, with Dumont’s intention to create a work that is impenetrable to the casual audience a genuine success.
Such subject matter cannot be tackled without reference to the work of Robert Bresson and Carl Th. Dreyer, with the latter’s Ordet and much of the formers later body of work (most specifically The Devil, Probably) both coming to mind, with their meditations on the plight of morality and the fine balance between good and evil being the core works in this particular area of the cinema. As with those works, Hors Satan rewards the committed viewer greatly.