Young people without imagination plod through the muddy farmlands. A handful of them go to war on unnamed foreign soil that has been battered into a desert wasteland. Those who are not blown apart by enemy shells busy themselves with raping local women during their patrols. Calloused by a life of boredom back home, they are unable to respond with much empathy or humanity now that they have guns in their hands. Meanwhile, their girlfriends await their return, numbly screwing around with the men that stayed behind. Filmmaker Bruno Dumont offers another spare existentialist portrait of modern man, once again insisting we are animals driven by primal hungers. He observes from a distance, and when characters are very small within a much larger landscape it creates the impression of gazing at behavior through a microscope—and often that behavior is depicted as brutal.
Dumont might argue that he is showing the internal workings of his characters through this camera placement, which suggests loneliness. As young lovers grope one another in the grassy fields or up against the walls of a barn, they fumblingly attempt to connect with one another as Dumont frames them in stark, unblinking wide shots and long takes. The sequences set in Flanders have a stronger resonance than the wartime scenes, if only because it makes a louder declamation about the daily monotonous grind these characters suffer and how they endure. That idea of “home” as the root of all our desires exists in counterpoint to the war scenes, and Flanders seems to wonder about those desires. When the young men go to war, in a wild place they don’t understand, they can release all those frustrations.
During an interview with the filmmaker for Twentynine Palms, I asked Dumont about the connection between horror and existentialism. He indicated that horror is one possibility of existence, and that through art we can allow ourselves the opportunity to observe that evil as a means of catharsis. “I think we have to see rape and pedophilia on-screen. It is a way of relieving ourselves of these urges, these needs within us, and thus is the purpose of cinema.” He explained that most of us, as human beings, don’t really understand the evil sides of human nature, but when we survive those nightmare experiences it allows us to tap into an acute kind of love afterward. “That’s our condition; the human condition. That is how human beings are. There is nothing we can change about it.”
Thus he is unblinking when he shows the soldiers trundle off to war and, during a firefight, blow away two children that were firing upon them. Echoes of dozens of other war movies dilute the point that Dumont is attempting to make, though, and he seems unaware of how familiar his statements are. No matter how graphic he gets during the extreme shock images (including a shrieking infantryman lumbering across the sands post-castration) the effect is not one of seeing the evil of man so much as the psychosis of war. Kubrick, De Palma, Kusturica, and Elem Klimov in his especially profound Come and See have already paved the way for Dumont’s savage offering. More interesting is his expression of love afterward, when a survivor returns to Flanders and attempts to reclaim the “town whore” he left behind. The story ends with a gesture of exhausted love in the grass—but it’s love devoid of remorse or pity, discovered only after one has experienced depravity and lived to tell.