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Stark and unflinching drama covering unglamorous living; the horrors of war and the gradual nullifying of the human spirit.
Flandres is a depiction of what happens when simple people are placed into complicated situations; it is a quite shocking, although stirring, war-set drama which is more about the tragedy of how human beings can slump to the depths we're able than it is about the tragedy of war itself. The folk in the film are unassuming, uncreative and with little to say nor do during their days in an undetermined, mostly rural, French speaking nation; the sorts of scenarios they eventually come to find themselves in are very much the opposite the film playing out like a perverse circus of what happens when a test gerbil is placed in an environment it has little-to-no-hope of conquering, and all for our viewing displeasure as we sit back and witness the experiment.
People in Flandres make love without emotion; they live life without empathy; and find it difficult to react to levels of deplorable violence. It is to this extent that Bruno Dumont's film is more a burning, nihilistic drama than a war film per se; a film that weeps for mankind, a film depicting a desensitisation that the species has for love; violence; fellow man and attitudes towards life. The film follows a young man named André (Boidin), an ugly man; a simple man, a farmer in the wooded plains of what could be France; what might be Belgium or what might even be somewhere as seemingly disassociated and arbitrary as Luxembourg. Farm life is routine: it snows in the winter and a lot of walking is generally required in a zone cut off from urbanised living. These people, other farmers and the young females living in close proximity, rarely speak with whatever communication required between them done so via glances and meagre actions. Since there is nary an awful lot that needs getting done in the first place, it is all that these people need to amass in their communication in order to get things done. So rarely do things happen in the lives of these people that a crude, seemingly random, sexual relationship between André and young Barbe (Leroux) strikes us as almost illegitimate.
It is on one of these days that one of André's few friends relays to him that he will be going off to war in the near future. In their leaning up against a barn wall, while appearing to systematically stare off into the distance beyond a nearby gate at what's beyond, we sense that this might very well be a jump for this character greater than it might be for others: nary do these people treads beyond into the wider unknown and what has just been spoken of would be a drastic change. Sure enough, Dumont's cut from the ice cold European territory to the flat, arid deserts of this unspecified place engulfed in a war between Europeans and Arabs is the sort of jump in composition that can only emphasise this.
André has clambered aboard in the drafting process, the idea that where they're headed is the unknown and the ambiguity surrounding what the war is for, as well as you might say the specific name of the country, is supposed to encapsulate most of what's going on in the Middle East, as Caucasians from most nations vie with locals in a place of which they've probably not previously heard for surface means of which they think they're aware. Trying to work out where exactly the warzone is acts as a pleasing distraction once all the war-set nastiness kicks off; where the clear inflection is Iraq or Afghanistan, Dumont appears to tie in the jungles of somewhere like North Korea to add to the idea this foreign war might just as well be anywhere. The wartime sequences are as harrowing as any from most war films, while the film itself is often constructed as if not even a war film in the first place but some sort of survival horror piece wherein folk have wondered into a Hellish bloodbath where one can only (how did Mr. Blonde put it in Reservoir Dogs?) "Pray for a quick death you aren't going to get".
Dumont doffs his cap to the likes of Full Metal Jacket with a sequence involving a sniper, a confrontation which eventually leads onto the encountering of a child soldier and the nastiness which comes with that. His greatest achievement, however, is how he constructs this idea of life on the homestead and life at war being more intrinsically linked than one might think - principally, the merciless disregard for young life in the executing of these child soldiers as well as the domestic termination of an unborn as well as the desire to instigate casual sexual intercourse with the women of where one happens to find one's self. This whole idea of white Western men, few of whom are bright in the first place, arriving on the shores of what is otherwise a stark change in climate and way of life in the form of a foreign country, before instigating their attitudes and ways of life upon what's around them, also feels apparent if not the primary focus. With a steady eye for agonised detail, Flandres is the painful piece of cinema I wasn't expecting heading in its topical nature combined with its grizzled aesthetic demonstrates a real talent at work while the experience as a whole stays with you for some considerable time, all of which adds up to something worth tracking down.
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