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Ownership of The Arts Voyager & Dance Insider, as well as our sister publication Art Investment News, is available FREE to a new owner who will keep the present editor on staff part-time and help him get a carte de sejour to return to France, plus provide health insurance in France. For details please contact editor & publisher Paul Ben-Itzak.

Flash Review, 1-16: Les Fleurs du Mal
Fallen Angels, Resurrected "Hors Satan"

Alexandra Lematre in Bruno Dumont's "Hors Satan." Courtesy New Yorker Films.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

I watched Bruno Dumont's 2011 "Hors Satan" (which could be translated as "Out of Satan" or "Outside of Satan"; personally, I like "Satan Outside of the Box"), opening Friday at New York's Anthology Film Archives, after viewing new episodes on American television of the Good Wife and the Mentalist, and the episode of M*A*S*H* in which an injured bomber pilot claiming to be "Jesus Christ" gets sent home because, after all, what would Jesus be doing in a war zone? These days, He'd probably be way too busy to intervene in the petite accablements of a young woman (Alexandra Lematre) living with her mother and abusive step-father near a terrain vague outside Boulogne-sur-Mer and fending off the unwanted attentions of a forest guard in the gothically austere Nord Pas de Calais region of France. So (spoiler alert), the task is left to an itinerant drifter (David Dewaele) who shoots the step-father with a rifle hidden in a windmill, beats the guard to a pulp, and who (if we take the story literally), judging by the way he resurrects the girl (identified as just 'the Girl' in the credits) at the end of the film, may in fact be the fallen angel, re-descending to Earth in search of redemption.

I opened by detailing my previous viewings because they put me in a frame of mind that made it hard to engage with the spirit of "Hors Satan" at first. Even the best dramas on American television (which, lest you think I'm being snobby, also make up the majority of what one sees on French television) don't require much thinking. The bad guy (which, on Sunday's Good Wife, happened to be an arrogant French doping official) always loses in the end, the good guy triumphs, and we're left with little moral ambiguity to wrestle with at the end (Law & Order and its derivatives notwithstanding). As relevant here, all the elements of the story are neatly served up, so that we really can turn into jello on the couch or E-Z-Chair. I was still reclining in that chair and ready to move to the bed when I started watching "Hors Satan" near the witching hour, but Dumont, and his actors, made me wake up, and not just to figure out if Dewaele's 'the Boy' (as he's identified) is a sinner or saint, devil or exorcist, arrived to deliver salvation or damnation.

David Dewaele in Bruno Dumont's "Hors Satan." Courtesy New Yorker Films.

Because here's the thing about "Hors Satan": Dumont realizes that the best art actively involves, engages, and maybe even implicates the audience, not just as passive receptors, but as co-creators in the actual scenario and the hunt for a moral. (Kind of like Modern Dance, Janet Eilber's expository lectures on Martha Graham notwithstanding.) For an American audience -- or, rather, an audience used to (for the most part) fast-paced American films -- which needs a lot of words and somersaulting actions on top of each other to keep its attention, "Hors Satan" may be excruciating to watch. After the Boy shoots and kills the stepfather, there's little overt exposition in the rest of the first half of the film and very little dialogue, just long walks in the dunes that overlook the Atlantic coastline, mostly involving the Boy and the Girl, with the forest guard popping up just long enough to try to kick him off the beach where he's camped, kiss her, get beaten and dragged off in an ambulance. The film has the somber mood, brooding ambiance, and pensive pace of other crime dramas (even those made for television) set in France's northern reaches, perhaps owing to their proximity to the Belgian border; Belgians are nothing if not humorless and (notwithstanding the triple-fermented beer) sober. So the viewer trained for more apparent drama can either turn it off, or turn his own creative juices on, imagining, for instance, what's brought the Boy to this forgotten corner of the world, what his purpose is with the Girl (who he refuses to sleep with), whether he set that brush fire and if so why, whether another, female drifter he meets on the road and beds on the beach at her invitation starts foaming at the mouth as soon as he's in her because he really is the devil, or because she has rabies, whether the Girl's skin is unusually white after she's resurrected because she really is an apparition or because the climate has finally blanched her face and eyebrows albino. And these are just some of the more overt questions that a literalist like me is left to meditate on. For those whose brains (unlike mine the night I watched "Hors Satan") haven't just been lulled to sleep by American t.v. candy, "Hors Satan" offers lots of empty spaces (not just in the lack of dialogue and the coupage, but even the absence of any sonic landscape to tell you what to feel) for reflection, on themes both massive and mundane.

Alexandra Lematre and David Dewaele in Bruno Dumont's "Hors Satan." Courtesy New Yorker Films.

Helping us identify with the characters is that, while Dewaele may threaten to supplant Vincent Cassel) as France's new bad guy good girls would love to sleep with, unlike, say, "The Good Wife," there are no Archie Panjabis here. The Girl is a scrawny foundling with cropped hair and flou (indiscriminate) features; the foaming female drifter is stalky, flabby, and doesn't shave her armpits; even the gamine the Boy awakens (exorcises? possesses?) from a trance with his own resurrection of the flesh (to borrow from Boccaccio) puffs up unattractively afterwards, presumably with child. "Hors Satan" makes you work to find its beauty, making the intellectual and spiritual treasure hunt all the more potentially rewarding.

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