“Nature,” Charlotte Gainsbourg warns Willem Dafoe in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, “is Satan’s church.” It’s a warning that hangs over Hors Satan. Like von Trier, Bruno Dumont—whose Twentynine Palms was, like Antichrist, a heterodox Genesis fable thickly veiled in the trappings of the contemporary art house and modern horror films—is a cine-theologian whose earnestness can be tricky to parse. Though he’s denied any personal belief in the existence of God, he’s nonetheless often tapped as heir apparent to the soberly religious Robert Bresson. Dumont’s last film, 2009’s relatively accessible Hadewijch, was a study of destructively devout religiosity—his Diary of a Country Priest. Wanting neither for rumination nor provocation, Hors Satan effectively splits the difference between Hadewijch and Dumont’s earlier films, while retaining the sometimes alienating, often enrapturing ambiguity that accounts for the filmmaker’s divisiveness.
Credited only as “le gars” (roughly, “the guy”), David Dewaele’s weathered transient lives in the countryside of wind-swept northern France. Quite literally, he lives in the actual countryside, taking shelter from the elements behind two feet of busted brick wall, sleeping on a rolled-out blanket, subsisting on sandwiches and cigarettes. Early in the film, he’s contracted by a nameless young girl (Alexandra Lemâtre) to take out her stepfather, who has been abusing her.
The eye-for-an-eye approach to retribution has a distinctly Old Testament feel, suggesting that Dewaele’s drifter occupies some hazy place between a vengeful god and the figure of Satan. The crags running across Dewaele’s visage prove impossible to divine in aid of an answer, the actor retaining a purposefully unreadable flatness that further complicates easily reckoning with Dumont’s film as a kind of straight-ahead religious allegory. The vaguely gothic fashion of Lemâtre’s protégé character, as well as the bloodshed that forges their relationship, may insinuate a pact with Lucifer, but their characterizations prove slippery enough to escape such easy coding. The English-language title offers little in the way help. Translated commonly as Outside Satan, this is either a film that precludes Satan or, simply, one which places him outside, communing with the brutish natural world that is his dominion.
Just as he used the arid, Antonioni-evoking deserts of Twentynine Palms to underscore the parched passions of its fighting, fucking Adam and Eve archetypes, Dumont’s employment of his bucolic French backdrop here attends to Hors Satan’s muddying spiritual ambiguity. Repeatedly, we’re treated to shots (lensed in CinemaScope with painterly attention by Dumont’s regular D.P. Yves Cape) of Dewaele and Lemâtre seated cross-legged, eyes closed, hands cupped in their laps, as Dumont’s camera gazes out over the deep olives and toasted browns of the landscape, suggesting a relationship with the grandeur of the natural would that’s either being worshipfully acknowledged or no less reverentially mocked. As these scenes play against those of murder, rape, and exorcism, it becomes increasingly tempting to scan Dewaele’s grave poker face for a wry smile; grace isn’t only an impossibility in postlapsarian France, it’s a joke.
The idea is—or seems to be—that these elements of the sacred and the profane are vague, and often indistinguishable, because they constitute a whirring dialectic animating a much grander concept: religion, Christianity, spirituality, or the even deeper thirsting for these things even in their absence. Dumont’s aesthetic configurations embody something of this dialectic. When not following Dewaele and Lemâtre treading through the countryside in striking (if, after a point, tedious) wide-angle shots, Dumont cuts to close-up to reveal the all-too-earthly coarseness of Dewaele’s face, the drab greys of his campsite, and base encounters between people. As in Bresson, especially circa L’Argent, exchanges of goods and acts of violence here tend to privilege tightly framed hands, disembodied to the point of abstraction.
Dewaele’s small-town sage may seem fickle with the fates of those he’s become so insouciantly entwined with, but he kills and redeems in equal measure—and, in a spiked, leftfield snatch of spiked violence that we may now consider one of the predominant filigrees of Dumont’s auteur signature, appears to kill and redeem in one uncomfortable sexual gesture. In another scene, he appears to ignite a blaze on a hillside (early he’s shown to possess such elemental mastery, unflappably submerging his foot in his campfire), only so that he may stride across water (maybe) the next. And when he’s done wrecking a Revelations’ worth of havoc in one town, with a few mitigating miracles worked into the fold, he packs up his knapsack, adopts a police dog as his companion, and hoofs it down the road to the next. Grace, redemption, even meaning—both in terms of Hors Satan’s narrative and the grander senses it seems to signify—are tricky to locate in Dumont’s brutal, resoundingly human, cinematic landscapes. So much so that even a rugged deity, an ambling God-Christ-Devil composite, has to keep dutifully hoofing it over the crest of the next horizon.