I remember when I first saw Bruno Dumont’s Humanite. It must have been about 8 years ago or so. I had heard the controversy: some thinking its slow-moving, overtly sexual and violent plot was meaningless drivel masquerading as philosophy. Others found it truly moving. While some Dumont films (29 Palms) can really fall into the trap of the former, Humanite for me rose above – far above, in fact – any such criticism. Flanders, one of his more recent works, and a Cannes success story, does the same.
Dumont’s films are sometimes reminiscent of Haneke’s. They’re relentless, slowly paced, and can be emotionally or physically brutal. His fall into a more spiritual/transcendental category. Flanders follows two protagonists: Andre (Samuel Boidin) and Barbe (Adelaide Leroux). They’re lovers…sort of. She sleeps around, and is accused of promiscuity. She even leaves a bar with another man when she originally showed up with Andre. He seems silently accepting. His blank face masks any potential begrudging.
When Andre goes off to war Dumont cross-cuts between his experience in battle and hers at home. Both are tough to watch. Andre is in the same platoon as Barbe’s other lover, Blondel (Henri Cretel). They are frequently under heavy fire, and are eventually captured.
SPOILERS from here on: in a critical moment, with only Andre and Blondel remaining alive, the latter takes a gunshot to the chest. Lying on the ground, the footsteps of the enemy imminent, he pleads with Andre not to leave him. Andre rushes off into the distance, saving only himself.
While at home, Barbe learns she is pregnant. She writes to Blondel, whose child she is convinced it is. Blondel seems happy, Barbe seems complacent. Suddenly, however, Barbe seems to lose her nerve. She goes crazy. Loses the child. Ends up in a psychological ward, screaming epithets.
Dumont’s film is filled with sexual aggressiveness, including a very difficult gang-rape scene, in which Andre takes part. The sexuality is what drives Flanders, and it is filled with ironies. Andre’s entire escape from war is an irony: he takes part in the aforementioned rape, but it is another member of his platoon – the only one who did not take part – who is castrated and killed for it. Andre is rather cowardly, but escapes unharmed.
What makes the film quite interesting is not only the contrast (or lack of contrast) between the wider war abroad and the personal war at home, but also Barbe’s strange “transcendentalism.” She seems to have a sixth sense about the war, even without any news. She predicts that Andre left Blondel to die even before Andre confesses to her. Their relationship – if you can call it that – seems beyond fraught, built on convenience, and lacking anything akin to love, yet the film ends with professions of love from each of them.
Is Dumont being sentimental? I don’t think so. At its most obvious, Flanders is a critique of war, and wartime emotion. Andre is certainly not an innocent figure. Barbe is more innocent, but her psychology seems to be built not on real emotion and more on availability.
In one of the most difficult moments of the film to interpret – and one of my favorites – Dumont shoots Barbe in a rather inflected way, eschewing the slow long(ish) takes and flat angles that dominate. It’s right before Andre returns and Barbe is out of the ward. Dumont cuts to a close-up of her feet as she stands on tiptoe. Another cut is from a high-angle looking down at her face as she stretches to the sky. I really expected her to fly. She doesn’t, but that’s the implication. It’s this moment that seems to imply that she is more than a simple human, that she is important, special, perhaps even holy. Is the child she was carrying representative of something? Is her abortion/loss of the child an indication that she is now unburdened in some way beyond the obvious? There aren’t clear answers given, but by making her into some spiritual being, Dumont certainly places the labor of [lack of] love and war more centrally on her shoulders than anyone else’s. This moment feels freeing. In fact, it’s one of the few moments in the film that does not feel tense or nerve-wracking.
Perhaps Barbe is supposed to be simply human – but a human who has gone through a trial and come out unharmed.
One last thing worth mentioning: Dumont’s casting of Andre as a clearly less attractive, somewhat slow-witted character is very similar to his casting of the protagonist Pharaon in Humanite. Both men are quietly obsessed with a woman. There’s a further comparison, in that both, whether deserving or not, emerge from their journeys physically unscathed. It’s too easy of a word, but is it this “ugliness” that protects them from the world? Is it that they fit so easily into an equally ugly world, that they are not anomalous in that sense, that they survive?