During Hollywood's first-quarter dumping ground of bad movies, silly movies, and a few Oscar stragglers finally reaching Seattle, a downright difficult movie can be a bracing change of pace. French director Bruno Dumont's prior Flanders and Humanité played NWFF in 2007 and '00, respectively, and you'll see some parallels with Hors Satan. Again a phlegmatic stranger stares intently at the glowing horizon. Again there are sudden episodes of sexual violence. And again we drum our fingers impatiently, wondering where it all will lead.
Runs Fri., March 1-Thurs., March 7 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 110 minutes.
Dumont, a former philosopher, works in the tradition of Robert Bresson, only slower. His two nameless protagonists, a vagrant (David Dewaele) and a rural teenage girl (Alexandra Lematre), speak very little. The performers are cast for their inverse charisma, their opaque faces. They're less people here than instruments in some kind of religious allegory. The drifter lives in a forest camp, not far from the English Channel, depending on alms and praying to the sun (though not with a Christian's steepled hands). He could be a saint, the devil, a holy fool, or a psycho hobo, but Dumont isn't saying. The vagrant takes it as his task to protect the girl (this first involves a shotgun and later his fists); then he rebuffs her grateful overtures. "Why don't you want me?" she implores. Yet he's not some celibate neo-monk. When a lusty backpacker appears, he fucks the sin out of her.
Dewaele's craggy face carves through the air with an indifferent scowl. It's a shock when he smiles or laughs, as when Lematre jumps on his back, demanding a piggy-back ride. (But even Christ cracked a smile occasionally, right?) With her waxy skin and ink-black hair in a pixie cut, the nonprofessional actress Lematre has a moony, gentle presence, a somewhat otherworldly benevolence. (In the press notes, Dumont speaks admiringly of "the way she has difficulty sharing her feelings," not usually considered an asset on set.) If the girl is no holy vessel, she at least shares the hermit's numinous appreciation of nature. As they march through the dunes and grass, it's almost like a Terrence Malick movie, only without the voice-overs. Still, they are not a fun couple.
All this builds slowly, without biblical economy or poetry, to the vagrant's familiar final act (see John 11:38). By the time he leaves town, leading a flock of exactly one dog, you know what sort of mission lies ahead.