A few years ago, French provocateur Bruno Dumont, whose early work (Humanité, Twentynine Palms) leaned heavily on unsimulated sex and graphic violence, truly startled cinephiles by making a sedate, contemplative film called Hadewijch. Anyone hoping this signaled a new direction, however, will be gravely disappointed by Outside Satan, which finds Dumont backpedaling furiously. As its title suggests, Satan grapples with the existence and nature of evil in the world, but it’s hard to take such weighty matters seriously when they’re explored with all the subtlety and grace of an anti-abortion pamphlet.
As part of his return to form, Dumont, who coaxed a magnificent performance from newcomer Julie Sokolowski in Hadewijch, has found two more of his usual inexpressive lumps. Neither character even has a name—the film’s credits simply call them The Guy (David Dewaele) and She (Alexandra Lemâtre). Both spend most of their time trudging wordlessly across the French countryside, occasionally stopping to kneel in silent prayer. She pretty clearly has the hots for The Guy, but he rebuffs every advance, choosing instead to demonstrate his affection by suddenly murdering her abusive stepfather, without any prior discussion. Subsequent acts of tender healing and insane, grotesque violence—in one unforgettable instance, seemingly both at once—suggest that The Guy may be some sort of supernatural entity, though calling the film Outside Satan (a rather clumsy literal translation) implies it isn’t quite that simple.
Dumont Classic has two primary modes: inexplicable and repugnant. No doubt there’s a spiritual allegory to be found in this sparse, oblique tale, but viewers have to be willing to wade through a morass of sullen behavior and random depravity to get there; for most, it won’t be worth the effort. What never fails Dumont is his remarkable eye (and ear) for the natural world—in particular, for the marshy region of northern France where most of his films are set. When nothing much is happening, which is quite often, it’s possible to get lost in the gorgeously forlorn landscapes (shot by Dumont’s frequent DP, Yves Cape), becoming preternaturally attuned to the sound of buzzing insects and rustling leaves. Then the stillness is punctuated by something designed to make viewers grimace, or worse, and the spell is broken. Dumont has proven he can transcend this juvenile conflation of the sacred and the profane. It’s disheartening to see him embrace it again.