11 November 2007

What Is It Good For?

Flanders [Flandres] - dir. Bruno Dumont - 2006 - France

At one point a couple years ago, I (along with a handful of others) noticed a trend in contemporary French cinema. There was this abundance of films coming from the country that struck a certain blend of controversy. Most of them were minimalist examinations of human relations that traveled beyond realism to metaphysical art pieces. They usually contained unsimulated sex, though it was never for titillation or even a pragmatic depiction of life. Some of them were gruesome, films whose minimalism aided in the dread and shock of the eventual violence. They were generally considered part of a movement of French extremism, though a friend of mine preferred something along the lines of analytical, anatomical art films. Catherine Breillat was sort of their unofficial leader, if for no other reason than the residual hatred she stirred from her films. With her latest film Une vieille maîtresse, however, she appears to have moved on (whether it’s forward or backward I can’t say). Bruno Dumont was one of the chief filmmakers of this so-called movement, whose The Life of Jésus (La vie de Jésus) and L’humanité won him praise that was swiftly taken away with 2003’s Twentynine Palms. I, naturally, loved Palms, but it’s safe to say that people decided to stop paying attention afterward. His latest, Flandres, was awarded the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but with little fanfare. No US distributor wanted it, and it was released on a total of two screens sometime in May this year. Over a year and a half after its Cannes debut, Koch Lorber quietly released it onto DVD this Tuesday.

After finally seeing it, it makes a kind of unfortunate sense that no one knew quite what to do with Flandres. On its surface, Flandres is a war film about no war in particular. The decision to leave the war unnamed poses as difficult in marketing in a country that’s currently at war in the Middle East. Audiences want their war films didactic, whether undeniably patriotic or bluntly skeptical, and they want a name. It’s that name that gives these films their so-called power and keeps them from revealing any form of art. But that’s being hypothetical; the box office failure of Rendition and the soon-to-be-failure of Lions for Lambs proves that American audiences really don’t want anything to do with the war right now… at least not in their cinema. On another surface level, Flandres retains the minimalist approach Dumont exhibited in Twentynine Palms. In fact, I’m not terribly sure what I took or what I’m supposed to take from the film. Yet I can’t say it hasn’t found its place in my afterthoughts. It reminds me a bit of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Both films appear to give the viewer close to nothing in way of plot or action (though both are notably violent and grisly), yet there’s something unnerving at work. Some of the most difficult films I’ve ever watched appear simple, a sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing, though seeing Béatrice Dalle bite the flesh off a young boy or a soldier being castrated aren’t the images you’d associate with a sheep.

On another level, Flandres is about the effects of war on life and vice versa. Dumont introduces the film with two friends, quiet farm boy Demester (Samuel Boidin) and neighbor Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux). They go on walks together and fuck apathetically in the grass. Barbe meets Blondel (Henri Cretel) at a bar, fucks him in the back of his car, and introduces him to her and Demester’s small circle of friends. It turns out that Demester and Blondel are both enlisted in the same squadron. Thus a love triangle begins, but Dumont isn’t as interested in the triangle as much as the psychology of those involved and their subsequent actions. The story is rather stripped down as none of the characters are ever revealed to be human beings, and as usual for Dumont, he uses non-actors to play the parts (I’d be surprised if you’d heard of any of Dumont’s actors, save Katerina Golubeva who appeared in a few Claire Denis film and infamously had unsimulated sex with Guillaume Depardieu in Pola X, though you’ve probably already forgotten about that). His use of non-actors, especially as homely as they tend to be, is just as effective as Catherine Breillat’s casting of a Gucci model and a porn star in her super-meta Anatomy of Hell. Without asking for “performances,” he boils Flandres down to implications and intentions. One isn’t supposed to deduce motive or understanding from the actor’s face as you might in an Isabelle Huppert film, but instead make assertions from actions. Flandres is a film whose understanding is completely onscreen and, at the same time, nowhere to be found within the frame.

NOTE: The comment about non-actors does not apply to L'humanité, as the actors were not only professional but took home the best actor and actress prize at that year's Cannes.

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