Early on in the latest film by former philosophy teacher Bruno Dumont, Alexandra Lematre’s character (identified only as ‘elle’) takes an in-ear headphone from the pocket of her hoodie and slips it in her ear. We, the audience are never made privy to the music she listens to, but the gesture draws attention to the use of sound in the film. As traditionally defined, there is no music in Hors Satan – no silken Hollywood strings, no pop songs, no diegetic performance, no non-diegetic score. Even the kind of sonic re-structuring usually handled by a sound editor is missing, for Dumont did not hire one.
No music, nor very much dialogue either – and most of what there is, is largely inconsequential. But Hors Satan is not a silent film. Far from it. We hear birds tweeting, cocks crowing, leaves rustling, as well as several more revealing sounds – a camera dolly rolling over its track, the wind blowing against a microphone.
In an interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, the director explains, ‘We recorded only live and “mono” sounds. What you hear in the film are the actual sounds recorded during shooting. I didn’t alter or re-record them. I wish some noises weren’t there, but I kept them anyway, stoically… The sound material is very rich and untamed. Therefore, when there is a moment of silence, you can feel it loud and clear.’
At one moment, after it has been raining, we hear water running over a corrugated iron roof and falling to the ground. The two main characters pause in their journey to watch and listen, and we listen with them. These characters frequently take time out to simply stand still and pay attention to some ambient sound. And even in their absence, the camera will likewise pursue such sounds to their sources, which become, in the process, a character like them. Sound – and a certain quasi-musical attentiveness to sound – thus subjectivizes, and in so doing constructs an audience that will be willing, like the film’s characters, to offer a certain attentiveness toward sounds, to give them time, without preconceptions.
How can we describe the sense of time experienced in the films of Bruno Dumont? It is certainly very far from the clock-time of Hitchcock, the almost Taylorist efficiency with which narrative details are revealed and slotted into the perpetual motion machine of the diegesis in his North by North West (1959) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). We find with Dumont a concern with rhythm and tempo that goes beyond brute functionalism, and there is evidently something musical in this. But neither are we dealing with the languorous time of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, nor the time of Béla Tarr, which would be something like the Erfahrung of Walter Benjamin.
Karlheinz Stockhausen once remarked that ‘Wagner, more than any other Western composer, expanded the timing of Western music: he would have been the best gagaku composer.’ While the first half of this statement is undoubtedly true, I’m not so sure about the second half. Think of the constantly held back, teetering sense of anticipation, of desperate yearning for an impossible fulfilment, found in Tristan und Isolde.
Maybe I am wrong, but I suspect this is something foreign to the Japanese gagaku tradition. Perhaps not so much to the cinema of Bruno Dumont – even if only to an earlier film such as Twentynine Palms (2003), in which the palpable sense of dread, of waiting for some seemingly inevitable horror, hangs suspended in each crawling take, like the infinitely delayed resolution of some grating dissonance in the middle voices.
Hors Satan is different in this respect. The shot lengths are generally shorter than in his earlier films (though still considerably longer than most mainstream films), the forward motion of the narrative less precipitous. Perhaps this film is closer to the sense of time alluded to in Stockhausen’s reference to gagaku.
In his book, Haunted Weather, David Toop, in the midst of a discussion about contemporary Japanese electronica, describes this 7th and 8th century court music, which, he says, survives largely unchanged to this day: ‘So measured in the progress of its percussive markers that it draws the image of a footstep raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut, gagaku’s timbral consistency is a gaseous astringency of reeds, flutes and free reeds.’
Hors Satan is a film which repeatedly invites us to listen, even when there is nothing – conventionally speaking – to listen to; it draws attention to its soundtrack, even when there is no soundtrack to speak of. This kind of invitation to pause, to reflect, to make time for the unfolding of an absence, evokes a kind of ritual-making space for the becoming of a miracle, in a manner which would have appealed to John Cage (a composer whose fondness for the gagaku is well known). We hang suspended in an amber of wind and water and other accidental sounds, ‘raised to move forward yet caught in a universal power cut’.