note: article contains spoilers
Nature is Satan’s Church
I was not familiar with the French filmmaker Bruno Dumont before this film was recommended to me, but even before I got to see “Hors Satan” I couldn’t help but look up the director and his films. And from what I gathered he seems to be a very divisive filmmaker, a director whose films often confuse critics and audiences, but also a director with a strong cult-like following. All this excited me quite a bit, just to see what exactly the deal is with this guy, and after watching “Hors Satan” last night the situation cleared up considerably.
First of all he is a divisive filmmaker for a reason as “Hors Satan” is a film that really pushes the boundaries of what is considered the norm in modern cinema. On a technical side the shots are very often static and always considerably longer than expected, and on the storytelling side the film does not care to divulge any form of explanation for the often strange events that are unfolding on the screen. This is a relentlessly minimalist film and by default this will alienate many people, mostly those who prefer their cinema in a more conservative style (which means the majority of viewers). But those viewers who are a bit more lenient and patient might get quite a lot from this film. Patience being the key word because the film is mercilessly alienating in its very opening.
This alienation comes from that rather stubborn minimalism that, to me at least, seemed very impenetrable at the start of the film. Nothing really happens; the characters are just walking around. Then they stare in to the distance for what feels like forever. Then they share a glance and walk away. Then they sit at the base of some strange tower. This is the first fifteen minutes of the film and at this point my brain is racing asking all kinds of questions. What the fuck is going on? What does it all mean? Are these people looking for something? Why are you showing me all this?
Then they shoot someone, and SOMETHING finally clicks with me. That I can recognize, that is build-up. Meaning that there is at least some intent behind this film, which is an immense and sudden relief. For a moment there I was afraid I’d be watching a film that is abstract and elusive for the sake of abstraction and elusiveness. Thankfully that is not the case.
As the film goes on it starts throwing you more breadcrumbs, and the more you persevere the larger those breadcrumbs become. The film feels like its growing inwards, from the outskirts of avant-garde towards a more traditional style. Or at least that’s what it feels like in hindsight, because the last sequences of the film feel way more dynamic than the sequences at the start. The story that was non-existent at the beginning has taken a shape of its own, and the arc of this story is surprisingly resonant - familiar even. It’s like those two characters that where wandering the French countryside at the start of the film have been searching for the first thread of the story itself.
And yet it’s the simplicity of this story that fascinates me the most. I can see people arguing and pondering over the concepts of this film until they grow old and weary and not getting any wiser about it. And yet it is all right there, right on the screen, and because the film doesn’t tell you what it is it’s very easy to over-intellectualize what it actually shows. This is of course a great compliment for the filmmaker and the intent of his film because it gives the film a nigh infinite amount of possible interpretations, but if you only take what the film shows at face value first and foremost then you may take the first steps towards really understanding it. It is something I’ve noticed that Michael Haneke does quite often, as well as Abbas Kiarostami - they show and never tell, and what they show is quite simple but profoundly thought-provoking.
So let’s try something out. Let’s take some concepts of “Hors Satan” (translated in English as “Outside Satan”) at face value. First there’s the title, “Outside Satan”. The main character in the film, “the Guy”, lives outside and seems to posses strange abilities that he does not always use to do good. At face value it is quite possible that the title is referring to him, the outside Satan. But uncharacteristically for Satan “the Guy” actually helps others; he kill’s “the Girl’s” abusive father and later literally resurrects her. And then he also helps another girl who seems to suffer from some sort of psychosis - he completely heals her. But this is not helping out of good will as we literally see “the Girl” feeding “the Guy” every day, giving him loafs of bread. But one day she doesn’t, and he goes to another door and receives bread. It’s the door of the crazy girl’s house. The people he helps are helping him, it’s a pact of sorts. You could even interpret the beating that he gives to the park ranger guy (or whatever he is) as helping “the Girl”, because she clearly complained to him about the park ranger guy’s sexual advances.
But this clearly is not the biblical Satan. Still, Satan has many interpretations outside the biblical one, so could this be the interpretation of Satan as a representative of nature and its unknowable powers and the indifference of the universe? He surely seems as indifferent as the universe, and also fair. The nature and universe abide to a set of defined rules, and “the Guy” seems to abide to a set of rules as well. Or does the film ask the question of what would Satan do if God was truly dead, as Nietzsche so famously declared? "The Guy" certainly seems to be worshiping towards the sky, with clasped hands as he expects something, but never receives anything. That is, if he is Satan to begin with. At the end he walks away with a sheepherding dog. So is he maybe "the shepherd", a reincarnation of Jesus Christ himself? The shoe fits that interpretation as well.
I am obviously entering the realm of over-intellectualization myself, but all these questions are raised because the film plays with those familiar themes but in an open and inviting way, challenging the audience to raise such questions and answer for themselves. And any honest interpretation of this film you come up with is probably the right one, because it’s your own and it will probably fit very comfortably within the film's structure.
This of course will make “Hors Satan” a frustrating film for many people simply because it’s a film that does not openly say what it means. Some people want their films to do all the legwork and refuse to meet the film halfway. It is a pity since films like this will be misunderstood because they’re challenging and different and written-off by smart-ass critics as pretentious or even pointless. But there is clear intent at work here and a clear train of thought and in the end it may very well be pretentious, but just in spite to the widely accepted norms of this art form it has every right to be that. We need more films like this.
David Dewaele - le gars (the guy)
Alexandra Lamatre - Elle (the girl)
Cristophe Bon - le garde
Juliette Bacquet - le gamine
Aurore Broutine - le routarde
Original language: French
Original language: French