I have a strange relationship with the French director Bruno Dumont. He has been responsible for one of the few films in my life that I've walked out on before the end (his 2003 feature Twentynine Palms) and I have found none of his films entirely satisfying, but I continually find myself drawn to them nonetheless. The weirdness of this pattern is exacerbated with the release of Dumont's latest film Hors Satan, which is in many respects the director's most opaque and mystifying picture to date. There is no attempt made to explain the motivations of its characters or the often inexplicable actions that take place within the story, and the themes of the film remain frustratingly hard to grasp. It comes as a complete surprise, then, that I find myself regarding Hors Satan as perhaps my favourite Bruno Dumont film yet.
Set in the barren but often starkly beautiful Nord–Pas-de-Calais, Hors Satan is so pared down to the essential elements it doesn't even give its leading characters names. The Guy (that's how he is credited) is a drifter who seems content to live outside society, setting up a little campfire every night and subsiding on handouts from people in the nearby village. One of the people who most regularly offers him food and drink is a young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre), the closest thing this man has to a friend. They make an odd couple. He's taciturn and possesses a thousand-yard stare that can be read in a variety of ways, while she's a withdrawn teenage, pale and clad in black, and often squinting as if she finds daylight too much to bear. Together they calmly trudge across the fields, exchanging few words, and seemingly find some kind solace in each other. The man appears to be a placid type of character, until he takes violent retribution against those who threaten or abuse his female companion.
As well as a killer, this man is a healer, imbued with the ability to cure ailing people seemingly through having sex with them (grubby sex being a Dumont trademark), and to perform miracles. Dumont drops these miracles into the film without any emphasis; they are simply another aspect of the film that we are invited to make sense of as best we can. Is he an angel, a devil, or both – a kind of satanic saviour? The title Hors Satan – or Outside Satan – gives us little to go on, and Dumont has no intention of providing any answers for his audience. His role here is to pose questions and he does it with an obliqueness that many will find off-putting – as I often have in the past – but in this case proves strangely compelling.
It's hard to know why this offering hooked my attention where his previous films have failed, but maybe it has something to do with the way Dumont uses lead actor David Dewaele, whose unusual and enigmatic screen presence is deliberately inexpressive but consistently intriguing. There are other virtues here too, notably the arresting widescreen cinematography provided by Yves Cape, and a climax that is simultaneously baffling, absurd, transcendent and satisfying. It's also open-ended enough to leave room for possible further adventures of this mysterious loner, and for the first time in a long time I can say I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing where Bruno Dumont goes next.