Review: Bruno Dumont’s “Flanders”


Bruno Dumont’s 2006 film, Flanders, a return to form after his failed US-set experiment, Twentynine Palms, returned Dumont to his familiar milieu of raw sex and violence told with Bressonian preciseness and economy. While Flanders is not quite up to the level of his near-masterpieces Life of Jesus and Humanity, it is a searing vision of war and its effects on those who fight it and those they leave behind, made all the more powerful by Dumont’s painfully unadorned and stripped-down presentation. Following Dumont’s usual method of casting, the actors in Flanders are all non-professionals.

We first encounter Demester (Samuel Boidin), working on his farm. We soon learn he is about to go off to war; whether he has been drafted or volunteered is unclear. Demester is a rather brutish-looking, inarticulate hulk of a man; the actor portraying him is one of the very distinctive ones that Dumont has an uncanny ability to discover. He speaks with a friend about the war, in very plain and simple terms.

We are then introduced to the film’s other central character, Barbe (Adelaide Leroux), Demester’s sometime paramour, and there is an early scene of the two having sex in the woods near the farm, shot in an unblinking fashion that emphasizes the animalistic nature of the coupling. This sort of non-dramatized vision will be carried throughout the rest of the film, both in the home and war scenes.

Before Demester is about to go to war, he has drinks with Barbe and other friends in a local bar. Perhaps to distance himself from Barbe’s reputation as the town slut, he denies that they have a real relationship. To punish him, she picks up another man, the more conventionally handsome Blondel (Henri Cretel), who will soon join Demester in the war, fighting in the same regiment. The pain on Demester’s face as he watches them is quite palpable. Later, Barbe tearfully embraces them both before they go off to fight.

Up to this point, the bleak rural setting (beautifully rendered by Dumont’s regular cinematographer Yves Cape) and the lack of an obvious contemporary feel would lead one into thinking this is a period film, perhaps set during World War I, in which Flanders was a famous setting. It is a surprise, then, that when we finally see the men in the battlefield, they are fighting a modern war in a Middle Eastern desert, clearly evoking the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country they are in is unnamed, and the nature of the conflict is never stated. What everything is reduced to is casual brutality on both sides. The soldiers shoot two teenage boy soldiers and brutally rape a female soldier. Dumont frames these scenes in medium shot, without cutting, close-ups or musical underlining, a matter-of-fact method that makes them all the more disturbing. Demester, however, doesn’t seem to participate in these atrocities; he simply observes them, but does nothing to protest or stop them. Later, the soldiers are captured by enemy forces, in which they are shot, tortured, and subjected to the same treatment they have given out.

The film alternates between the battlefield and the farm, where Barbe becomes increasingly agitated, to the point that she is committed to a mental hospital. She also aborts Blondel’s child. Barbe seems to feel the cruelty of the war in an extremely empathetic way; after the soldiers shoot the children in the stomach, there is a cut to Barbe holding her stomach. Although this is perhaps due to her pregnancy, the juxtaposition of these shots suggests otherwise. An outburst she makes to Demester later in the film, where she says she saw what happened in the war, confirms this. Barbe, far from the battle, feels the death and destruction keenly, while Demester and the other soldiers commit brutal acts without remorse or any recognizable human feeling. We can infer from this that in Dumont’s view, women, as far more empathetic creatures than men, are far less likely to cause the conflicts that lead to the carnage that we see here.

Demester returns from the war, in the film’s terms, just as abruptly as he went in. Outwardly, he seems unchanged, returning to his usual life of work on the farm, and sex with Barbe. When asked about the war, he says simply, “It was hell out there.” However, the film’s final scenes drive home how profoundly he has been transformed by his war experience. Culminating in a final scene that explicitly evokes Bresson’s character epiphanies (especially Pickpocket), Flanders offers a vision of war that is quietly shattering and quite moving, remarkably achieving this without overt politics or specifics, rendering Dumont’s essential truths in quite visceral relief.