I saw a couple of dozen films at the Sydney Film Festival and had seen a dozen or so already in Adelaide or Vancouver. (The latter included Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman on the Beach, all great films, and most of the New Crowned Hope films. You can check out what I liked in a couple of pieces I contributed at www.sensesofcinema.com.) At the SFF there was one further standout, Flanders directed by Bruno Dumont. It seems to have been entirely ignored in the modest post-festival wraps that have appeared so here goes a paean of praise for this is the kind of film that justifies any Festival’s existence.
After four features, now it’s clear that Dumont is already one of the major European film-makers, as distinctive in his voice and approach as any of the best half dozen French film-makers of the last three decades. I don’t know which of Dumont’s films, if any, have already been screened in Sydney. The festival catalogue was pretty skimpy with any information about directors’ bios or any previous films screened here. Whether or not he’s had exposure it was apparent that the morning audience was ready to sit still and be put through Dumont’s personal griller.
Flanders heads back to his native soil, the harsh and rude country of the north. It also heads back, after his unfortunate digression to California for an exploration of the lives of shiftless sophisticates in 29 Palms, to salt of the earth working people. His characters again seem to live in a permanent melancholy that pervaded L’Humanite and The Life of Jesus. They have relationships that are perfunctory and wary. The sex that takes place between them is equally perfunctory. Young characters head into the fields or the barns and get off quickly. The females are rarely satisfied. The sex between Barbe, the promiscuous female lead and her neighbor Demester and that between Barbe and another farm worker she fucks while Demester and another lover Blondel are away on military service is as joyless as it gets. We never actually see her making love to Blondel. It’s his death that devastates her and sends her into an asylum.
Dumont takes this biological microcosm a step further by removing his rural working class lads from their environment and sending them off to fight a war in one of France’s African colonies. It might be anywhere and any war. The boys embark on ajourney into the unknown on horseback, splitting away from an armoured unit to head into the hills. At this point the film is at it’s most Brechtain and you have to wonder whether Dumont might see his characters as the descendants of the bewildered buffoons who went of to war on the promise of treasure in Godard’s Les Carabiniers.
Only one of Barbe’s lovers, Demester, returns. He abandoned Blondel to his fate when chased by nameless African insurgents but does feel remorse and guilt. Finally Demester is able to confess his love for Barbe, a love that he had denied expressing and which thus contributed to her promiscuity and her breakdown.
This is bleak. No question. But it has a ring of truth about human experience and the limits, especially, of male expression. It’s a theme that Dumont has pursued through all his work and I guess we cant expect him to change. His rural France is a world away from Parisian sophistication.
To the accusation of misogyny I can only say that showing misogynists at their coldest and most brutal doesn’t endorse them nor even seek pity for them. His denizens of rural France are as they are. This is an unvarnished truth told in a manner that sets the camera just far enough away to ensure that we bring our curiosity, don’t abandon our sympathy, but see people in a manner that shows the truth of their lives.
Finally given the programming placement, to see this film a day in proximity to Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe serves to emphasize the difference between someone young engaging with society and someone old withdrawing from it.