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The title of Bruno Dumont’s latest existential downer, Flanders, is hardly a surprise considering the director’s background. Although the writer-director took an aesthetically calamitous detour into the California desert with 2003’s Twentynine Palms, his two previous films were both set in rural northern France, largely around his hometown near the Belgian border. This is Flanders, although Dumont’s vision of it is as much psychological as geographical. It’s a place of brute beasts—cows and pigs and people, all of which are driven by primal appetites and little else.
The opening scenes of Flanders immediately disclose that the director is back home. A still life in brown and gray is animated only by the sounds of farm animals, until the peace is interrupted by the word “shit” and then “fuck.” Sullen, thick-necked André (Samuel Boidin) is the one cursing, but he forgets his petty rage when a childhood friend, Barbe (Adelaïde Leroux), arrives. They talk about his plans—he’s about to join the army—and then walk to a nearby field and have sex. Although less explicit than similar scenes in Dumont’s The Life of Jesus and L’Humanité, this quick, unromantic coupling is characteristic of Dumont. In his Flanders, lust is never dressed up as love.
Except that Barbe doesn’t agree. She’s an undemanding girlfriend, but she does want her status acknowledged. Later, at a bar full of men about to go to war, André tells another couple, Mordac (Patrice Venant) and France (Inge Decaesteker), that he and Barbe are “just friends.” She doesn’t protest. She just leaves the table, picks up Blondel (Henri Cretel), and goes home with him.
That Barbe might feel love is the film’s philosophical surprise. The narrative twist is that much of the action isn’t set in Flanders but in an unidentified North African country. Apparently, France is at war with an Algeria-like nation, although there’s no sense that the story is set during the ’50s and ’60s, when there really was such a conflict. Like Dumont’s Flanders, his foreign land is a state of mind. It’s a place where André, Mordac, and Blondel—they all end up in the same unit—can inflict and experience the horrors of war, including rape, murder, castration, and incineration. Perhaps unintentionally, Dumont uses the alien country to make joyless Flanders look a bit more appealing.
For all the movie’s brutality, Dumont’s depiction of his home turf does become a bit warmer. Flanders is mud and work and sex and death, but after the war, it’s also a refuge for André, and a place where he and Barbe might start again. If the director’s view of human existence remains pretentiously bleak, this ending is a modest breakthrough. Flanders—which took the Grand Prize of the Jury award at Cannes last year—won’t satisfy viewers who expect the total happiness or complete rehabilitation of the central characters. But it does suggest that there is some comfort in this world, however horrific life essentially is.
Dumont is often compared to Robert Bresson, in part because both directors use nonprofessional actors, but the former’s style is even starker. There is no added music in Flanders, which uses the crunch of footsteps and the whine of machinery as its accompaniment. Expertly framed and coolly efficient, the film goes to hell and partway back in 90 minutes, never wasting a shot. That’s why Flanders is almost a pleasure to watch, despite portraying events that range from sad to appalling to absurd. If only Dumont’s worldview were even half as engaging as his filmmaking.