Bruno Dumont’s great theme is grace. More specifically, the French director seeks to render those showstopping moments when faith obtains in a fallen, degraded world he invariably portrays by directing inexperienced actors to appear as nonverbal and uncivilized as possible while decorating his austere mise en scène with outbursts of brutality. Dumont is an agnostic, then, with a glaze of art-house opacity. This agnosticism was most compelling in 2009’s Hadewijch, a parable about grace misapprehended, in which an intense young novitiate’s descent into extremism was depicted with astringent wit and plangent sympathy intermingled. His follow-up, Hors Satan (“Outside Satan”), marks a clear step backward into more programmatic dichotomies and tonal derailments. A fertile, sparsely populated low-country is the backdrop for an elliptically developed story that pivots on a dime into starkly symbolic aggression and random acts of transcendence.
The film begins with a conspicuously Bressonian image, a close-up of a spiritually suggestive transaction: a hand knocks at a house’s back door, which opens; a couple of slices of bread are passed out of the darkness. More close-ups of the same hands later on, palms up and encircled by greasy denim, as their owner kneels facing the sun, in unorthodox prayer. “The guy” (played by Belgian superstar DJ David Dewaele, who has one of those Vincent Cassel/Lee Van Cleef thin-end-of-the-wedge faces, a holy-fool openness as its default expression) lives in a meager windbreak in the sand dunes just out of sight of the sea on the far outskirts of Boulogne-sur-Mer. The pale young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre) who keeps him fed comes to visit, more than is strictly necessary.
Her solicitude is reciprocated with his mystical guardianship, though we come to understand this largely through the tension arising whenever either of them tests the elasticity of their platonic bond. He appears to insulate her from danger with his superhuman (or else supernatural) aura, producing (or possibly conjuring) a shotgun to kill her abusive stepfather, though the motivation for the murder is revealed obliquely and after the fact. A subsequent act of protective violence is undercut by how readily he unleashes his fury (Dumont treats us to a shock cut to a beating already in progress).
For his part, he rebuffs her romantic overtures, redirecting his animal instinct into violence against nature; when he does indulge his urges, the sex is very Dumontian, with pig squeals and intimations of demonic possession (which, it turns out, he is capable of absorbing from out of foaming mouths, a literal Sin Eater). Parceling out information so that the story comes into focus only gradually, in time with the halting expressions of its principals, Hors Satan resolves itself only once its characters embrace their intended allegorical functions.
Dialogue scenes are played soft-voiced and stilted, but Dumont embeds suggestive bits of poetry throughout, like the way Dewaele’s character teases the woman by standing in the middle of his campfire. And there’s a practiced mastery in Dumont’s handling of his native French Flanders landscape. Characters wander through his detached, god's-eye-view long shots, their warm, labored breathing mixed intimately high into the audio track. Unexpected arrivals in the extreme foreground add tension to the casually lyrical objectivity of his compositions.
And yet the film feels more withholding than mysterious. Not that Dumont should be held to genre standards of procedural rigor, but it’s odd, isn’t it, that the local cops never question the drifter who is frequently seen with the daughter of a murder victim? It’s difficult to feel transported by the impossible when the film’s world is already so clearly governed by the arbitrary.
The ultimate miracle, when it does arrive, is anything but miraculous in its impact if you’ve already seen Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. The piercing light of the divine can seem as conventional a contrivance as anything else, especially given the insistence with which Dumont plants his little explosions of atavism and grace. At film’s end, le gars strides away like a drifter at the end of a Western: yup, folks, reckon my work here is done. Who was that stranger, anyway? The devil, possibly…