A former philosophy professor who learned filmmaking by directing industrial shorts, Bruno Dumont exploded on to the film world little over a decade ago with his first feature, La Vie de Jésus (1997). It was apparent from the get-go that Dumont was a profoundly physical filmmaker whose 'Scope compositions and atmospheric soundtracks have a visceral impact on the viewer. His favorite sounds are grunts, engines and the splat splat splat of provincial brutes walking in the mud.
His second feature, L'Humanité, was a surprise winner at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, taking home three awards (the Grand Prix, Best Actor and Best Actress). Although reviled by most reviewers at the time, it's a lot more interesting and memorable than the popular favorite, Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother. His follow-up, Twentynine Palms (2003), also divided viewers when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but without David Cronenberg around to give it a major prize or three, it attracted much less attention. I was glad to see Dumont stretching himself by making a film outside France and casting a professional actor (Claire Denis regular Katia Golubeva), although not everyone agreed; Jonathan Rosenbaum for one felt that Dumont had lost his moorings.
Flandres (2006), which won Dumont his second Grand Prix at Cannes, is a war film about French soldiers fighting in a vaguely defined battle somewhere in the Middle East. The opening scenes in the French countryside are lovely, but once the men ship off, the story loses its way.
The film opens on a farm where Demester (Samuel Boidin), a large man with an unshaven Neanderthal face, receives a letter informing him he's been drafted. This being a Dumont film, it's not long before Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), a pale girl with heavy eyelids who lives on a nearby farm, shows up for some anti-erotic coupling in a field. It's winter so they both keep their coats on. Later in a pub, when asked about their relationship, Demester says they're just friends. In revenge, Barbe walks over and introduces herself to a man, Blondel (Henri Cretel), who's been staring at her from the bar. Demester seems to accept this, and the three of them come to a Jules and Jim-style arrangement. Up to this point, Dumont has yet to take a wrong step.
Then Demester and Blondel go off to war, finding themselves in the same squadron. The film purposefully doesn't explain why this war is being fought or what either side hopes to achieve. If you think this is a cop out, ask yourself what the US is doing in Iraq.
The episodes are so disconnected that, for a time, I thought Dumont was simply refusing to narrativize the war. A white soldier gets into a fight with a black one for reasons that are never explained. I suppose it doesn't matter since, soon after, the black soldier gets shot in the head. Is that a spoiler? The film presents it matter of factly and it's never mentioned afterwards. When the French kill two child soldiers, Dumont lingers on the men's blank reactions. Meanwhile in France, Barbe has an abortion and is later put in a psychiatric hospital for her nerves. Things just happen without any apparent cause or effect.
A plot does begin to take shape. The French soldiers rape a woman who may or may not be a soldier, although they agree later that it doesn't matter either way. "A hole is a hole," one of them says. In retaliation, the French soldiers are kidnapped and tortured. Like Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007), the film put images in my head that I don't want to have in there.
There's no doubt that Dumont is an important filmmaker, but Flandres isn't one of his great films. The storytelling is disjointed, and apart from Demester who's features are too singular to be mistaken, I started to lose track of which soldier was supposed to be which. It treats war so generally that I'm left wondering why Dumont would allude to specific wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would the film lose any thing if the characters were fighting in Sweden? At the same Cannes Film Festival where Flandres won the Grand Prix, the Palme d'Or was awarded to Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley and the Best Actor prize went to Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes (both 2006), two vastly superior war films that are as concrete and historical in their approach as Dumont's film is abstract and ahistorical. Those are the films I would recommend you see instead.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Posted by Michael Sooriyakumaran at 5:10 AM