By Christopher Sharrett.
Bruno Dumont’s second film has been termed by certain commentators a “remake” of La Vie de Jésus. The notion is bewildering. Yes, both films are shot in Bailleul, both films deal with often everyday, banal actions of characters, but to fail to note the differences between these two films is to have no concern for questions of value and accomplishment, and even to be unable to note that L’Humanité has a distinct plot nowhere in the first film, which could indeed be called brilliant sketchwork for Dumont’s second work. Other critics call L’Humanité a policier, which at one level seems reasonable, but, if one attempts a complete accounting (which these remarks won’t attempt, so expansive are its implications), is not very useful.
The title sets forth the ambitions, referring to the current condition of humanity and the humanity within each of us, that which is today especially under siege; the film is Dumont’s assessment, at its moment, of the state of human values. Dumont offers here a character, Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotte) who fully embodies the concerns of the work in a way that David Douche simply could not. Neither the title nor the film’s content seem to have dissuaded commentators from making ridiculous remarks about this film. The Internet Movie Database says that the film is about “a police detective who has forgotten how to feel emotions.” This site is presumably the definitive Internet source for information about film. If there is any point to this film at all, it is that Pharaon’s sensitivity makes life almost unbearable for him. The girl’s corpse that is the focus of Pharaon’s investigation clearly traumatizes him. The corpse has been compared, appallingly, to Marcel Duchamp’s tableau Étant donnés. I viewed this work many times when it first went on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I don’t mind saying that it is a set of dirty jokes, a toying with 3D, and yet another play with “voyeurism.” To compare this to the image of the dead girl’s body, as Dumont makes us observe her mutilations, including those on her genitals, and further to see the shock of Pharaon, is to have no concern for judgment and context, and the obligation to make distinctions.
The film’s stunning opening sequence is really the true introduction to the director’s sensibility, revealing La Vie de Jésus to be an essay preparing for this film (and in this way only is L’Humanité a “sequel”). In extreme long shot we see a tiny figure running across the distant horizon line in front of a large greensward. We then see the protagonist Pharaon, whom we learn is a cop, climb over a fence, run, then fall over, face down into a ploughed field, his left eye staring just off camera. He stays still until he hears a message coming from his police car. When in the car, he plays harpsichord music on the radio. The music evokes Bach, and sets up the film’s taut conflict, one that compares with ideas in Bergman’s The Silence (1963) or Haneke’s La Pianiste (2002): Can human values, represented by the best human achievements, survive in the present world?
One of the great distinctions of L’Humanité is the presence of Emmanuel Schotte, another non-actor essentially stumbled on by Dumont. His gaze is riveting and evocative, suggesting amazement, shock, despair, amusement, inquisitiveness. The most common reviewer remarks speak about Pharaon/Schotte as a “reverse Columbo” or some such. Dumont makes his character seem improbable (yet not – there are certainly odder people in positions of authority) so that we might consider the difficulty of this kind of sensitivity thriving in such a job – or in the world of work. The posters that we see of local and national officialdom in the police headquarters encompass him, a system he serves but which has little relation to what he does.
The film might be called a traditional policier in the sense that much depends on one man dealing with the “system,” tracking down a bad guy, and finally supporting authority (Pharaon’s confrontation with the strikers who want to see the mayor). Yet Pharaon seems valuable mainly because his powers of observation represent a human presence, a rare sensitivity, rather than the abilities traditionally associated with the detective. In most cop thrillers – even those where the cop has a fetish for jazz or another hobby – the hero’s humanity is peripheral. Here, the cop’s involvement in the world, his observation of the sweaty shirt collar of his boss, the asylum inmates, his vegetable and flower garden, above all the Pharaon De Winter painting that he takes to a museum, point to a collective loss that has produced the horrendous crimes besetting the world.
In L’Humanité, the world’s survival depends on people like Pharaon, even as his serious problems are exposed. Or does it? Joseph confesses to the murder at the end, and there is a question as to Pharaon’s role, if there is any at all, in bringing the case to a conclusion. There are moments in the film where Pharaon’s sensitivity is central to his crime-solving ability, most importantly his Munch-like scream of outrage and his dash toward the train tracks. He pauses at a fence as the Eurostar high-speed train drowns his cry and provokes a thought. Pharaon thinks that the killer’s vehicle may have been spotted by the train’s passengers; he already has sketchy evidence that the killer may be a bus driver.
But Pharaon’s “investigation” is not only intermittent (he takes time for an outing with Joseph and Domino [Philippe Tullier and Severine Caneele], it seems not much involved with studying empirical evidence. Rather, Pharaon’s very presence, the intensity of his gaze and his sensitive involvement with the world, seem central not to capturing the killer but in ensuring that the values he represents overwhelm the awfulness of the killer’s presence, the negative qualities sickening the empty but seductive plains of Bailleul.
This is not to say that Pharaon’s “cop identity” is negligible. Perhaps the most striking policier moment is Pharaon’s interrogation, following up on his hunch about the Eurostar, of an elderly couple in England. Pharaon meets them, with a translator, at an office building whose high windows bathe the interior in an eerily cold blue-grey light. Like many moments in the film, there is a sense of stillness and slowness, as if the atmosphere is pregnant with information. Pharaon asks the couple if they saw a bus from their train. As witnesses the old people are fairly useless, but as Pharaon stares outside at a fight in the parking lot, which amuses the translator (“Hey fellas, there’s a fight out here!”), there is the sense that not only has he taken a major step forward in capturing the child-killer, but in closing in on evil itself – the extent of his power Dumont leaves in question, even after the levitation scene.
But the film provokes questions. Pharaon as Holy Fool can be accepted only so far, it seems to me. His physical repulsiveness – his flaccid body, his choking on a piece of apple at his mother’s house, his infantile gestures (shaking his hands by his head when he thinks Domino has forgiven him) – are complemented by his off-putting behavior, especially his observing Domino and Joseph having sex in a very odd version of the primal scene, one reasserting Pharaon’s uninformed nature. He reinforces Joseph’s negative behavior (belching in the car, laughing at Joseph’s rude jokes at the old fortress). And Pharaon seems uninvolved, if not cowardly at times – it is Joseph who stands up and shouts down the rowdy, vulgar drunks at the brasserie, not Pharaon.
Pharaon’s sexuality is perplexing. He supposedly lost his girlfriend and baby to an accident – are we to take this seriously, or has he manufactured a legend about himself, which seems hard to believe given that the tight-knit neighborhood would know all? The “myth of the widower,” the lonely man who mourns lost love but continues stoically forward, would gain him sympathy in the town and even further masculinize him, suggesting a note of the heroic, but is creating a lie an answer to his personality? He is the perpetual “fifth wheel” with Domino and Joseph, the male who cannot begin a relationship of his own, although he is accepted by Domino, who sees him as a friend (perhaps because he is sexually non-threatening) and one needed, given her problematical relationship with Joseph.
Pharaon is one of cinema’s mama’s boys, whose meals are still prepared for him by his mother – if we are to accept the Hitchcockian view, all of this spells psychopathology, although of course Hitchcock’s image of the boy-man may tell us more about that director than his creations. Pharaon is by no means Norman Bates; Dumont eschews such psychological categories by his basic challenge here: the human subject can be a social invert, even pathologically, and the Holy Fool. Dumont’s roots in literature and philosophy, rather than movies (one thinks, regrettably, of the new movie brats like the base Tarantino) serve him very well.
Pharaon’s kisses and embraces of male suspects – and other men, such as the hospital aid – may suggest that he is simply gay rather than a messiah/forgiver, a response which his imposing gaze makes one first entertain. Dumont’s sense of counterpoint is operative here. There is no reason to dismiss the idea of Pharaon as gay/bisexual, if such categories have any meaning or relevance. But they do not negate or override the central concerns Dumont locates in the character.
Pharaon doesn’t “solve” the case, but in learning that the killer is Joseph, Pharaon is triumphant; he gives to Joseph his archetypal embrace, then shoves him away. Joseph has represented an accepted form of masculinity that the narrative casts out. There is a growing sense in the film of Joseph’s obnoxiousness, then threat. When Pharaon rides the school bus that Joseph drives as he tries to trace the killer’s comings and goings, Joseph expresses his dislike of children. Pharaon, here and elsewhere, rebukes Joseph. As much as he wants to be accepted by the other man as a friend, he distrusts and dislikes him enough that by midway through the film there is no “mystery.” Joseph stands for a death-enforcing vision. In pushing him away in the denouement, Pharaon dismisses that which is opposed to life, to a meditative view of experience, to authenticity.
There is a key scene that pinpoints if not Joseph’s villainy, then an aspect of temperament that Dumont portrays as a threat to us, an evident blight beyond accommodation. While Pharaon is in England, Joseph and Domino go to an outdoor café. They sit holding hands. Domino murmurs “I love you.” Instead of returning the profession of feeling, Joseph sits and smiles, his left hand to his mouth. His eyes are narrow; one can’t say there is a threat in them, but neither is it easy to read affection. The scene cuts to the two of them having sex, Domino on Joseph’s lap as he bounces her roughly up and down. It is sexuality as animal act. This type of sex scene appears so often in Dumont that one is tempted to call him a sort of extreme naturalist, seeing people as crude beasts. Of course there is plenty of other evidence for us to know that such an idea by no means informs Dumont’s humanism, even as he speaks of the animal-like need for relief that overtakes the sex act – his narratives show other things going on with characters, before, during, and after the act. The sex with Domino is controlled by Joseph, as it is controlled by men in Dumont’s other films, even when the female is “on top.”
The obvious control of Domino by Joseph must be contextualized with her relationship with Pharaon. There is an especially notable moment of abuse of the female in L’Humanité. Pharaon, Domino, and Joseph stroll by the seawall on the Opal Coast. Here, as in a moment in Flandres, the possibility of a sexual triad and an alternative vision of society seem possible. But the resistance of an obvious reactionary bully like Joseph (and in part the sexually conservative Pharaon) makes this an unattainable and ridiculous notion. Pharaon encounters an old friend; they stop and shake hands. The camera moves to Domino, who is staring at the young man’s mini-briefs, his genitals obvious. It is a fairly remarkable moment in film, the acknowledgment that the female is drawn to the male genitals, an obvious enough idea about the sexual appetite of the female “animal,” yet one that is even now suppressed and punished. The man leaves, and Joseph and Pharaon proceed on their way, not even noticing that Domino is still seated on a bench. Finally, Joseph turns and whistles at Domino, as if she were a dog. Not even the Holy Fool, Pharaon, has noticed that Domino was momentarily left behind. In this scene, the film implicates patriarchy absolutely in its horrors.
Domino is often alone, usually waiting near her stoop. Each time I watch the film I am prone to reconsider her centrality, more so than Marie in La Vie de Jésus. If Pharaon is the naïf and Fool of the narrative, Domino is the most authentically human person, the most open and spontaneous. She is without guile. She labors in the awful factory, packaging a noxious orange goo, conscientously going on strike (which Pharaon hinders – insulting Domino in the process) with her colleagues, from whom she is alienated. She doesn’t mind telling off Pharaon for his odd, off-putting behavior, yet she is his authentic friend. When she offers sex to Pharaon, he spurns her. Her gesture might be seen as coarse (she puts her hand in her vagina), but not meriting Pharaon’s rebuff – his own habits are hardly decorous. Dumont pays homage to her when he cuts back to the interior of her home for the L’Origine du Monde moment. We see her vagina and pelvis, the hem of her white blouse visible. The angle is slightly different from Courbet’s canvas, but the point is the same: the female genitals are a sufficient answer to the origin questions posed by philosophy and science, the constant maundering, answered in such images to inform us of the utter centrality of the female body to existence in all intellectual categories.
Domino’s final moment emphasizes her crucial position for Dumont. She grieves openly upon learning that Joseph is the killer. The camera stays on her face, her eyes red, her face wet with her tears, her body convulsing slightly with her grief – it is an extraordinary performance by Severine Caneele. We know that Joseph was always suspicious, not only in terms of the murder plot but more crucially in his bogus humanity, his callousness and sexism (making him unremarkable). Domino represents the awful entrapment of the female (especially the uneducated – Domino speaks to the intellectual deprivation of the working class) by the emotional prison of romantic love, yet her devotion is wholly admirable.
Any conclusion about the value of L’Humanité must look constantly at Pharaon, one of Dumont’s remarkable characters, and one of the most interesting in fiction. In a famous scene in the garden patch, Pharaon levitates. Is this a ridiculous moment? If accepted with reference to religious systems, certainly. Dumont adds a touch of humor: we see Pharaon’s head, with his new bad haircut, slowly rise up from the bottom of the frame. One must take the image on its own merits, just as one assesses the sentiment of a Quattrocento painting, its color and composition. Are Bible scenes in Renaissance art not more appealing than the actual religious texts? Here and elsewhere Dumont asks that we rethink basic human impulses – like the urge to stand outside of oneself – without the encumbrance of religious dogma he deems “primitive.” In the final images, Pharaon sits alone in the police headquarters. He wears handcuffs. The sense is less that he has confessed some obscure complicity, but rather that he has taken the “sins of the world” upon himself, or, more simply, makes the people around him – or at least himself – see his responsibilities (for not acting faster, for not being a better, more astute person), his failure as a human being. The sequence concludes with Pharaon’s upward gaze out the window, a Dumont emblem.
Pharaon is a comprehensive image of humanity, in Dumont’s typical warts-and-all presentation. By being fully human he is a vestige of something facing extinction. His collapse in the mud after observing the dead girl, his harpsichord music, his eyeing an abandoned plough (recalling Dumont’s visit to the Braque exhibit), emphasize what the human temperament has been, but what now exists, where it does, with a sense of embarrassment and defensiveness. The point is made clearer several times in the film. Pharaon plays just a few chords on his electronic piano. He hums along as he watches scenes of violence in the Middle East on a little television, one of Dumont’s most evocative contrapuntal moments. The self-portrait by his great-grandfather is most crucial.
Pharaon takes the painting to a Pharaon De Winter exhibit at a Lille museum. That Dumont thinks highly of the painter is clear from the beginning, when he highlights a small blue plaque on the home of De Winter in Bailleul. He is a painter who captures earthy scenes – a doctor treating a patient – as well as the crucifixion of Jesus and other subjects important to tradition. The museum curator is grateful to Pharaon for the painting and the visit. Pharaon stares at the exhibit; he is uninformed, but his response is powerful because instinctual. He notes De Winter’s use of green; the curator says “it is unique.” The two men move about the room, with its deep red walls. Pharaon spots a painting of a little girl seated by a tree. She stares at him/us. Pharaon gazes at the painting, then bows his head, a reverential pose. The curator goes on with his supervision of the exhibit, stopping to thank Pharaon as he leaves, giving him his card. Pharaon’s long pause before the painting of the child is the key moment of the film, it’s affirmation of Pharaon as embodiment of the fully human, something that expresses divinity without need of theology. His pause is complex, motivated by his connection of the child in the painting to the dead girl, his respect for his great-grandfather’s art, for art’s basic capacity to make us think about our humanity’s circumstances.
It is difficult not to wonder about museum-visiting as it currently exists. Certainly some approach it with Pharaon’s reverence, but don’t many see it as the hip thing to do, as a place to meet people (not an evil act), as a rendezvous before a posh meal, as a way of joining the cognoscenti? And is there anything, given the current state of postmodernity, worthy of approaching with reverence? L’Humanité, above all, puts certain obligations of thought on us.
Dumont’s third film seems to me his least satisfying, not because it fails to achieve its central goals, but because it lacks the density of his previous films and those to come. There is some sense of the counterpoint, the dialectic, that informs all of his work, but this film is overwhelmed by a negativity that makes its vision narrow.
Dumont planned a much larger project in the US to be entitled The End. When funding for that film never materialized, he undertook this film with two people that he learned, to his dismay, were actors: David Wissak and Katia Golubeva. The working relationship was not happy; the “making of” film on the Tartan DVD shows some of the tension on the set. In interviews and in performance, Wissak comes across as confused and confusing, self-involved, adolescent. This became felicitous for Dumont, who worked with the personalities of the two actors, not changing their names, making them his “characters.” The film is Dumont’s essay on America, framed by a battle-of-the-sexes narrative as the couple drives deep into the desert of Southern California, as David scouts locations for a photo shoot.
In an interview I conducted with the director, Dumont quoted John Locke’s remark, “In the beginning all the world was America.” An investor in the New World, Locke’s ideas about America were Edenic, suggesting that the “settler” couple were extensions of Adam and Eve, with society embodied first in the couple. But Locke’s Enlightenment values were very much anchored in aristocratic interests – yet their expression has value in understanding the US of the present as captured by Dumont. For Locke, total freedom has contradictions. For Dumont, these contradictions are not about liberalism’s flaws but rather the inherent problems with the American “civilizing experience,” the bourgeois couple, and the relationship of romantic love to the goals of conquest and oppression. The America of this film is exhausted; while part of this world seems forward-looking and hopeful (the huge metal windmills suggesting the hope that new energy sources might save the planet from its inevitable death), this seems marginal, with the dominant image that of desiccation caused by the industrial age.
Dumont’s vision of America is unremittingly arid – the choice of the Southern California desert as location is only sensible. David and Katia bicker as they cross the desert in his Hummer, the oversized “sport utility vehicle” adapted from the military – it’s bulky, armored version became a symbol of American imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the US, this type of vehicle is a mechanical bully, meant to intimidate other drivers as it engages in mayhem and self-destruction – it is a proverbial gas-guzzler, a latter-day version of the big sedans ruled out with the 1970s (momentary) realization that the expensive cars were damaging in all sorts of ways, not least of which was their danger to the very planet. But the dumbing-down and remilitarization of the US gave us the Hummer and similar machines – here the Hummer is a lover’s carriage, for a couple playing out the endgame of human affection in a climate poisoned by patriarchal law and the consequences of late capitalism.
Twentynine Palms is the film with the closest affinities with Antonioni, both in the idea of the “sickness of eros,” a major concern of Antonioni of the 1960s, and the sense of America as a cultural and physical wasteland, so fully achieved in Zabriskie Point (1970). The body and the genitals were never before in Dumont so often on display, but here the purpose is to delineate the spiritual transformation of the human, with the body, often photographed in high-porn images evoking Helmut Newton, deliberately transmitting not an iota of warmth or respect for the human subject, representing not the author’s position certainly, but that of his subject, represented most by David. While Katia and David have sex frequently, the sex act seems a sad form of diversion, and a way of avoiding the deep troubles existing within the couple’s relationship. More broadly, sex has been turned into its opposite, and is as much a figure for the wasteland as the surrounding desert. Crucially, Dumont emphasizes the male’s orgasm, which has the appearance of a death rattle, as David’s face contorts while his voice conveys awful pain. Considering his final lunacy, the sex acts seem portentous.
We see archetypal images of the American Southwest as it is today: in long shot Dumont shows palm trees framing a tall sign announcing “motel” at the bottom of a curved highway ramp. This is by no means an impoverished part of Southern California; had Dumont chosen, say, a small Texas or New Mexico town, we would see a grinding poverty that nevertheless retains a dignified human presence, rather than omnipresent signs of the so-called service economy.
While they drive in the Hummer, we hear Japanese folk-pop on the CD player. Does the couple have any connection with this culture, or a means of appreciating that to which they listen? The music has the aspect of alienated speech, corresponding to and extending the tense, always confrontational dialogue of the couple.
As the Hummer pulls into the outskirts of Twentynine Palms, we hear Bach’s Overture to the Orchestral Suite No. 1, conducted by Karl Richter, whose rendering is by far the most stately, yet most serene. The music is diegetic; it has the tinny sound that would seem to emanate from a vehicle or storefront – but where? It is impossible to imagine that anyone in this synthetic posh town would have a trace of interest in Bach, and this seems to be Dumont’s major point. Katia and David cross a street as a red pickup truck passes them. One redneck yells: “Get the hell off of our street!” D.H. Lawrence remarked that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” (but Lawrence was enamored of this soul). The moment captures economically so much of American ideology: the myth of private property, the spontaneous need for aggression, the lack of respect for the needs of others, and a basic coarseness, ill-will, and vulgarity. Indeed, although this nation is in desperate need of the sensibility of Bach, with his enormous compassion, it will enjoy it only in others’ fantasy. It is notable that the streets of the town, like those of Bailleul, are mostly empty, Dumont’s indicator of both alienation and provincialism.
David goes into a convenience store in search of car wax to repair the scratches on the Hummer, caused when he permitted Katia a moment at the wheel. The store has kitsch signs on the front marking it as a western “trading post” of old – one cannot help but spend at least a moment thinking once more about the genocide of the Native population by US policy, replacing it with consoling (for whites) simulations of a bogus past, the west of westerns and kitsch tourist culture.
The car wax is tied to David’s adolescent – and cruel – temperament. In a scene after the “driving lesson” (David has no interest in giving Katia actual instruction, because he is emotionally incapable and sees her as less than capable). As he squats outside, staring at the car’s damaged door, obsessing over its lesions, Katia breaks into laughter, realizing something about her lover’s nature. Dumont’s coding of David make the situation obvious: with his ragged Beatle mop, outsized clothes, and inability to listen to anything but his own whims, David is the American male as child – but a dangerous one. The danger slowly becomes expressed. He chases Katia down a late-night Twentynine Palms street, eventually overtaking her, dragging her to the ground, slapping her.
The couple has established camp in a motel notable for its sense of sameness. Katia bathes while David lies in bed, idly masturbating as he watches “The Jerry Springer Show,” surely one of the most degraded examples of postmodern “reality TV,” in this instance a talk show in which no real conversation takes place (it is all staged of course); couples instead scream at each other as they learn sordid details of each others’ sex lives. Katia enquires why one woman is crying. David asks “Who?” Katia had focused on the obvious: a woman is told her husband had sex with their daughter. Katia expresses shock and sympathy; David, wise to the gimmick, expresses nothing, accepting this culture on its own terms.
The moment of the film that received the most notice is the “Deliverance” scene where the couple is set upon by a group of rednecks – not the group that yelled at them, but another, suggesting the commonplace degradation of the contemporary working class, its basic savagery (we aren’t far from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Katia is stripped naked and forced to watch David being sodomized by one of the gang; the emphasis, here and later in David’s response, is on David’s humiliation, on the final realization that he is helpless, but something worse – that he is worthless, not for being ineffectual, but for a vacuity making him a kinsman of the barbarians. That he should be so seen by Katia (his eye is on her as he is bloodied) is unbearable to him, provoking the final moment. Katia returns to the motel with food; David rushes out of the bathroom screaming, then knifing Katia to death. The moment prompted reviewers to make comparisons to Psycho or modern slasher films (there is of course no reason to note differences in quality or ambition). Reviewers basically emphasized Dumont trying to gain a big audience with gore, even though little gore is seen, and the killing lasts a moment, followed by a long take, a high-angle shot showing the police discovering David’s dead body in the desert.
The “beginning” referred to by Locke now has implication: the beginning contained traces of the end, of Adam and Eve as a desperate couple in a poisoned land. America is portrayed as irredeemable, its culture non-existent, its eye blinded, ear deafened to the great art of the past (the faraway sound of the Bach Overture). As a condemnation of the US, Dumont’s film might indeed be compared to Zabriskie Point, but Twentynine Palms, because of rather than despite its meager means, is able to capture the awfulness of the American condition perhaps more efficiently than Antonioni, as distinguished an accomplishment as we have in his much-maligned film of 1970.
The poster for Flandres shows the image of an army helmet, upon which is superimposed an image of a young woman embracing a thick-set man. She looks at us, her face expressionless. This is one of advertising’s more effective and efficient moments, capturing much of this film’s concerns: the emotional alienation of the female, the uninterest (except at the purely sexual level) of the male, the connection of state power to sexuality and its repression/destruction.
This is Dumont’s most overtly ideological film, since it involves a war somewhere in the Middle East (the place is unnamed, but some assume this is Dumont’s “post-9/11” film, as reviewers did with Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003) and Caché (2005), as if no one could conceive of violence of any importance occurring outside the US, or imperialism carried out by other than that nation – although to be sure the US is the major imperialist power of the present era).
Dumont begins not with a war but a revisiting of familiar terrain – the farmland outside of Bailleul. As always, Dumont investigates what he knows, following a basic creative admonition. The landscape uses an essential aesthetic strategy, as it exteriorizes the inner lives of characters. We see the barn, outbuildings, and house on the property of André Demester (Samuel Boidin). Thin clouds move over a blue sky at dawn, yet the grim brown farmstead isn’t illuminated. Storm clouds form, as the day becomes rainy. Dumont gradually establishes farm life as drudgery and boredom, relieved now and then by sex with Demester’s girlfriend Barbe (Adelaide Leroux). And relief is the word, since Demester is typical of men in Dumont’s films, using women for sexual relief and little more, the woman’s needs not only unsatisfied but unconsidered.
Demester seems oddly idle for a farmboy at dawn. He steps out of a barn. His left arm has suffered a bad contusion; the morning sky turns dark. Dumont has never used foreshadowing quite as much as this establishing sequence, with its suggestion of castration and doom. Demester walks to the edge of a field and makes a small trap, which hardly seems functional, with a pocket knife, a twig and a piece of wire. Eventually he gets to fixing a tractor in a dilapidated shed, a rusting water tower in the background. He ploughs a field, the camera close on the tilled earth. Dumont emphasizes the rustic, and takes a French Realist pleasure in nature, its beauty and essential eroticism, its life. But the idea of the family is missing from Demester’s farmstead and environs; the only adult for much of the film is Barbe’s obese, ugly father. The large farm family, with its great mutual support (as in Ford) is nowhere to be found. As with most of his films, Dumont emphasizes emptiness and silence, the only prominent sounds the wind and the muted activities of characters in the empty landscape – Demester carries branches to a fire shared with Barbe. Eventually they are joined by Barbe’s other love Blondel (Henri Cretel) and several other friends. Barbe kisses Blondel with more passion than she has shown Demester. The idea of a triad defying sexual laws would seem plausible, given that this is a world of young people who are responsible for the keeping of the world, but Dumont breaks the delusion. The young have inherited what they have, but the old rules are fully in force, represented best by the arrival of draft notices.
The politics of Flandres resides in part in its consideration of the “peace time” army as a source of employment for the poor – and possible fun for bored males, who have no choice in any event. The use of the working poor as cannon fodder is a significant issue, especially when Demester returns alone from the imperialist adventure, all of his friends from Flanders dead. But this is not nearly as significant as the fate of the people they oppress, and I think it reasonable to say that even their fate isn’t as important to the film as the linkage Dumont makes between imperialist warfare, with the attendant rape of the women of the colonized population, and male sexual conduct and gender relations as depicted in his previous work, the relations constituted by patriarchal arrangements.
After a final evening together by a fire in the increasingly dark greenery of French Flanders, Demester, and his friends say goodbye to Barbe and her friend France (Inge Decaesteker). We observe Demester and friends going through the rigors of training camp, although the rigors seems somewhat playful, emphasizing again the homosocial male bond, with its implication, more thoroughly explored here than in La Vie de Jésus, that men regard the authentic emotional relationship (although never stated of course) as among men.
Dumont uses an editing strategy unusual for him; he cuts from the green fields of Flanders to an unnamed Middle East nation, its terrain stove-lid flat except for some very rocky hills, the land totally empty of vegetation (although Demester’s final escape is through a jungle, an unusual visual surprise that unites, say, the assault on Algeria with that on Indochina). The horizon line seems beyond the eye, although a dark, ominous sandstorm seems to mark it. The film cuts back and forth, taking us back to Flanders and the travails of Barbe. She sits alone, her hand touching her vulva. She is pregnant and distraught, knowing the repercussions. France becomes a support – the two know that they will have best luck getting Barbe an abortion in Belgium. A doctor attends to Barbe in a darkened bedroom, after which he consults with Barbe’s father, convincing him to put his daughter in a hospital, which turns out to be a mental hospital. The narrative counterpoint makes a clear association between Barbe’s subsequent torment and the savagery of the Flanders boys in the Middle East.
There is no conversation as Demester, Blondel, Leclercq (David Poulain), and the others make their way on horseback, tanks following close behind, two ages of imperialism thus depicted back-to-back, an apparently endless and relentless process. Their cruelty is unrelieved; a mentally handicapped man runs beside them, presumably asking for food. He is shoved away. The troops have naturally become anxious, but one asks if their actions are based only on their fear of “the enemy.” A land mine kills several men, after which a fire-fight ensues, the troops firing at a dilapidated building the same color as the sand. One of the Flanders boys shouts that the “cunt isn’t finished” (firing). Dumont makes the point, perhaps tired but very necessary, that men associate danger, victimization, and death with the female, the “cunt” a castrating agent, played out here literally.
After murdering a number of male children – who are armed but seem scarcely to know how to use their weapons – in an abandoned building, the troops approach another partially-destroyed structure, dragging out, without a thought or remark, a woman whom they proceed to gang rape. Demester, the man we tend to see as the ignorant-innocent farm boy, hesitates, then joins in. Afterward, the men ask Leclercq, who did not rape the woman, if he is a “queer,” the question natural, proceeding as it always does from a defensiveness and terror of homosexuality, and the need to associate sex with the destruction of the female. The men read mail from home. Blondel learns of Barbe’s pregnancy; he says the child “came from [my] balls.” The remark is familiar, oddly naturalist and atheistic, but of course it is neither, but simply a display of the deliberately callous sentiments (on display for other men) of the male toward the female, suggesting that the sex act means nothing but penetrating the gullible female (in watching this film I recall the idea of Andrea Dworkin that the male sex act is inherently an act of violence, especially given Dumont’s blunt and unsparing rendering).
The remainder of Demester’s force is captured by a group of Arab “insurgents.” They are bound and forced to kneel; a young, forlorn Arab woman appears, dressed in a short-sleeved military shirt, covered with dirt. She very quietly speaks, nodding toward Leclercq. He is taken away and castrated, his screams perhaps worthy of sympathy since he was the “queer,” the man who did not rape. The point is not the arbitrariness of violence in war, but the repercussions for sexual violence. The Arab woman is an agent for women, for Barbe, who goes into a rage at the asylum, and is seen in a filthy concrete stable (that looks outright ominous), having rear-entry sex with a skinny, filthy man. Suddenly the sex act seems not driven by boredom or compulsion, but more the fate constantly suffered by the female until something else happens, some alternative vision of humanity. In this, Flandres is Dumont’s most negative and uncompromised film. The castration and killing of Leclercq is one possible outcome, but Dumont does not foreclose the future entirely. When he returns (he abandoned his rival, Blondel), he resumes things with Barbe, but she momentarily leaves him to stroll off with France – a lesbian vision is hinted at, but set aside in the provincial world of Flanders.
Dumont goes so far as to suggest that Demester, far from being the returning warrior who will restore the land and its society (The Searchers), brings blight, if anything at all. Demester, Barbe, and France walk along a winding dirt road – it is sand-colored, uniting the landscape of Flanders and that of the oppressed country Demester has left. The grass near the road is dead and matted. Abandoned auto tires are strewn about, some mounted on short posts, a surreal sight suggestive of the nightmare that has been and will be lived.
When they are alone, Barbe asks Demester about the fate of Blondel. Demester demures; Barbe says “I know, I was there.” This is not an outburst from a deranged woman (her insanity is precipitated in any event by the circumstances imposed by Demester, her father, and the other men); rather, we can accept the conceit here that there is a link among women, that Barbe and the Arab woman are the same person. Or one can read this merely as suggesting the woman’s sensitivity giving her the key to the truth, female “intuition” being more a matter of genuine empathy (which we know is nowhere with the male) than some supernatural ability. Demester admits his cowardice as he is embraced by Barbe, the film ending essentially where it began – the ox-like Demester (is it possible to retain interest in him?) atop Barbe, who forgives him. She is less interested in hearing a confession than having Demester confront the reality of who he is, and what Flanders represents.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently revisiting Bach’s Violin Concertos, and the novels of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot.
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