French film-maker Bruno Dumont has been hyped as a controversial, polarising director during a career that has seen two of his four films win the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. His latest, Flandres, walked away with the award at the 2006 festival to both applause and criticism.
The film is a bleak, minimalist vignette of the effects of de-humanization. Demester (played by Samuel Boidin) is a simple farmer in the barren, northern fields of Flanders. Called up to fight an unidentified, seemingly interminable war, he leaves behind the brutality of life on the frigid plains of Northern Europe for the barbarity of combat in the scorching desert, fighting an unknown Arab enemy. Also left behind is his childhood friend and casual play-thing, Barbe (AdelaíÂ¯de Leroux), who descends into a manic state, haunted by an intuitive knowledge of events in the war zone.
Dumont weaves Northern France and North Africa together, using the threads of sex and war to convey his dystopian vision of a ‘bestial humanity’ struggling with our baser instincts: desire, revenge, jealousy, brutality. Barbe’s life is devoid of any emotional warmth; she offers herself up to Demester, who screws her without compassion or sentiment, only a base, animal need. When he denies that they’re a couple, Barbe fucks the first man she can find – noisily and publicly, seeking revenge for Demester’s heartlessness. While Blondel (Henri Cretel), her latest lover, provides her with some warmth and compassion, he too has been called up to fight. With the men gone, Barbe continues to use her body for sex; receiving nothing in return, she becomes a broken, tragic little girl, eventually committed to an institution by her dispassionate father. The uncaring brutality with which she’s treated mirrors the savagery that Demester and Blondel find themselves mired in. When the group of soldiers take a female fighter captive, she is gang-raped and left to die, exposed and vulnerable. Her vicious treatment underscores Barbe’s own exploitation by the men in her life. Sex and war are dehumanizing tools of violence and desperation.
Yves Cape’s lingering cinematography, the hyper-realist sound recording and the muted, sombre acting cleave together to convey Dumont’s bleak vision. Every element of the film, from Demester’s brooding, craggy features and his detached, emotionless sex with Barbe, to the scorching desert where death is indiscriminate, paints a picture of a savage, primeval world. The squelching mud underneath Demester’s boots in Flanders evokes both the horrors of World War I and the filth and tedium of rural, peasant life; the sharp, staccatto gunfire in the desert, free from special effects, sounds hollow, empty, unglorified.
But Dumont’s emphasis on the brutal consequences of violence and sexual exploitation are hardly unexplored subjects, nor are they particularly controversial. The rustic farm-girl as ‘village whore’ is indeed little more than a tired cliché. Similarly, the scenes in the desert, which allude to both Iraq and the war in Algeria, hardly break new ground. Scores of movies have better conveyed the brutality and futility of war. The pacing is at times agonisingly slow, while the first half-hour of the film seems about as dull as the grey skies over Flanders. While not entirely unlikeable, there is certainly nothing shocking, groundbreaking or revolutionary in the film that seems to merit Bruno Dumont’s success at Cannes.