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Whether you like the films of Bruno Dumont or not, one thing is certain
you never forget them. Films such as La Vie de Jesus and L'Humanité
have an elemental power that challenge us to confront the sickness of the soul that comes from denying our capacity to be and act human. Dumont's latest film Flanders, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2006, has the same acute powers of observation, slow and careful revelation of character, and insight into the human condition that characterized his first two films. Like La Vie de Jesus, Flanders is a film that deals with sexual and racial tension and marginal young people whose lives mirror the emptiness of the rural countryside in which the film is set.
The first two words of the film are the "f" word and the "s" word, which set the tone for what is to follow. Demester (Samuel Boidin), a burly local works on a farm and is having a passionless relationship with Barbe (Adélaide Leroux), a girl from a neighboring farm. True to Dumont's oeuvre, sex is joyless and mechanical and neither partner expresses affection. There is little dialogue and no musical score, only sounds of nature, the clumping of boots through the forest, and the grunting and pumping that suggest the sex act. The expressions on the faces of the characters are as vacant as the surrounding countryside and no director in the world can better convey a sense of pervasive emptiness than Bruno Dumont.
At a local pub, Demester matter-of-factly denies that he and Barbe are a couple, prompting Barbe to react by going off with a stranger, Blondel (Henri Cretel) to have sex and it soon becomes apparent that she has a reputation in the village for promiscuity. Demester and Blondel's fate will intertwine however. Both are in the same regiment called up to fight an unnamed war in a distant country that looks like the North Africa of Claire Denis'Beau Travail. It is not clear if the fighting is meant to reflect the War in Iraq, the French adventure in Algeria, or perhaps a European war yet to be fought. When the soldiers arrive they walk through a trench, possibly a vision of World War I in Flanders field, immortalized in the poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.
Dumont shows us war in its ultimate depravity including rape, murder of children, castration, and other brutalities. It is as if years of the soldier's sexual tensions and lack of emotional connection has exploded in a callous way, reflective of the torture of Iraqi's at Abu Ghraib. As his buddies die one by one at the hands of dark-skinned guerilla fighters, it becomes obvious that Demester will not lift a finger to save or protect them, a witness to his inability to access what FDR used to call, "that quiet, invisible thing called conscience". As the guerilla fighting in the streets and houses intensify, there is a war going on at home also. Barbe becomes pregnant and has a mental breakdown that lands her in a psychiatric hospital. Soon the war will be fought on two fronts.
Flanders has been called an anti-war film but the war seems to take place mostly on an internal level. It is expressionistic and poetic, a film that unfolds as if in a dreamscape that has no past, present, or future. You cannot appreciate Flanders by thinking about it, but only by feeling it, viscerally, in your blood. After showing mankind at its most vile in order to, in the director's own words, "relieve us of those urges", Dumont grants us a catharsis. Like unemployed, uneducated, and epileptic 20-year old Freddy in La Vie de Jesus whose vision of the sun after a brutal murder heralded an awakening, in his barn after the war's end, Demester recognizes the truth of the gaping wounds in his own soul and opens himself to the possibility of grace.
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