By Stephanie Zacharek
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Eight years ago, the philosophy professor-turned-cineast Bruno Dumont debuted his sophomore feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in a banal French village on the northeastern coast, the plot involved an investigation by police superintendent Pharaon, a repressed, mouth-breathing mama's boy, into the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl. The movie opens with her crotch looming into view, a foretaste of the bloodless (mind) fucking to come. Pharaon's ineffable condition (a variety of existential retardation commonly acquired through contact with pretentious disciples of Bresson) is played off the desultory sex life of an inexpressive proletariat with Paleolithic anatomy and her virile, volatile lover — precisely the sort of thing for which the phrase "bumping uglies" was invented.
Dumont dubbed the picture Humanité, bluntly proclaiming its allegorical ambition. (His first film, a meditation on Flemish delinquents, was titled The Life of Jesus). An allegory of what, exactly, remains as unresolved as its narrative, but there's no questioning his skill at evoking a vividly ponderous atmosphere of significance. Humanité oozed a heavy, hypnotic air, smothering the viewer with an intensely palpable, oppressively lugubrious gravity — the cinematic equivalent of being suffocated by a massive, uncanny armpit.
Led by David Cronenberg, the jury at Cannes notoriously awarded Humanité its second-place Grand Prize and two top-acting prizes. The real scandal, however, was Dumont's followup, Twentynine Palms, a monstrously asinine Euro-hippie, anti-capitalist, pseudo-exploitation freakout set in the California desert. Back on home turf, Dumont returns with Flanders and another Grand Prize, this time from last year's jury headed by Wong Kar-wai — from whence we may deduce that Flanders, the nadir of the Dumont oeuvre and the bottom of the sub-Bressonian barrel, establishes some unfathomable principle by which the greater the genius of the Cannes jury resident, the greater the honor bestowed on this dunderheaded auteur.
The obstinate weirdness and corporeal heft of Humanité has devolved in Flanders into solemn, bovine mannerism. Samuel Boidin is the latest thick-faced non-professional herded through the pig shit and mud of Dumont's beloved provincial wasteland...of the soul! He plays André Demester, a farmer recently conscripted into an unnamed Middle Eastern war. But first he will wander about fixing blank, meaningless glares at the trees, the sky, the rolling hills, the filthy livestock, a glowing campfire and sullen Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), a local girl we shall summarize, given little else to consider, as the village slut. Needless to say, uglies will bump.
Off to war he goes, joining the most implausible band of military bozos this side of The Hills Have Eyes 2. Lacking any specific mission or leader, they fan out into the desert with blank, meaningless glares to commit a series of bungles and war crimes. An ambush ends in their killing — oh, senseless, horrible killing! — two schoolboy insurgents. The grunts brutally rape a woman; the moral universe has collapsed; great quantities of celluloid have been defiled. Karma catches up when the soldiers are captured by associates of their rape victim. One is castrated and shot in the head, an atrocity of reprisal — Oh, the terror of reprisal! Oh, the evil of war! — witnessed by his comrades with blank, meaningless glares.
Meanwhile, Barbe is getting it in the butt from a toothless, sweet-natured yokel. Later she will discover she's pregnant, light a cigarette and glare. There will be some sort of nervous breakdown in the hospital, a condition potentially related to the above-mentioned existential retardation. Dumont cuts between the cliches abroad and the banalities at home with a sluggish, ping-pong monotony intermittently enlivened by nice picture-making. He's got a decent way of moving figures toward the vanishing point of a landscape: Barbe heading to the horizon, tracking fresh footprints in a midwinter field; soldiers and tanks forking off in deployment, trailing clouds of sand. Otherwise, ugh.
"When one films a landscape," Dumont has written, "it represents the character's interior climate. I do not film Flanders, I film what the character has inside. When you have a subjective shot of Demester looking at the landscape in front of his farm, we are inside Demester. Everything is mental and internal." Flanders is, dontcha know, a state of mind, and Dumont is plain out of his. Bruno Dumont returns with another Cannes award-winning clunker.
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