The title and the opening scenes of Bruno Dumont’s latest film once again demonstrate the director’s close association and almost mystical preoccupation with the very earth and dirt of the land of his home region of Bailleuil in the north of France, as well as its bloody history. Flanders opens in a farmyard where André Demester (Samuel Boidin) makes his living, the damp air filled with the sound of animals, the soft soil squelching beneath his feet, the land churned up by a plough in a premonitory act of the violence to be later enacted. He meets his casual girlfriend Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) and makes love to her outdoors on the ground, a last physical communion with his home soil before he answers his call-up papers and goes off to fight in an unnamed war in a remote foreign place he knows nothing about.
Also called up and enlisted in the same regiment as André is Blondel (Henri Cretel), a young man who Barbe has casually picked up in the bar while out with André and his friends. There is consequently an uncommon bond as well as a certain amount of rivalry between the two men as they find themselves trapped and lost in a barren North African desert with burning oil-fields on the horizon, fighting an anonymous, abstract and one suspects meaningless war, surrounded by hostile natives. Back home in the north of France meanwhile Barbe struggles with the consequences of her actions and suffers a deep existential crisis.
The two parts of the film are connected on a common psychological or, if you like, philosophical level and the uniting theme behind them is violence. But for the final scene of the film, there are no other impulses shown in Flanders but the most basic and negative - fucking and killing, fighting, rape and murder. In both parts of the film, there is no sense of emotional attachment or consideration for anything but one’s immediate basic needs – no compassion, no understanding, no solidarity, no companionship. The issue of non-communication is most evident where the soldiers, lost in a strange land, fail to understand the natives, not speaking their language, nor even attempting to see them as people. There’s only one language that is universally understood and that is the gun. The failure to meaningfully connect with another person is however also evident in the scenes on the farmland in the north of France, and though it is enacted on another level that is psychological and sexual, it is no less violent.
One may groan inwardly at the prospect of all this heavy-handedness and the sheer force of the incessant emotional, physical and sexual violence on display – particularly if one has seen and not greatly appreciated the grim subject matter of Bruno Dumont’s earlier films. But the simplicity of the premise - plainly presented and unadorned by allegory, symbolism or didacticism - is intentional, the director pushing boundaries of realism into pure expressionism. And if the bleakness, bitterness and pessimism weighs heavily or the relentless brutality offends the viewer, its purpose is to challenge them and force them to confront sensations they may not wish to acknowledge, but are inherently part of human nature. In this way, the uncompromising nature of Dumont’s worldview may certainly be bleak and one-sided, but it expresses all the more forcefully the deep harm and sickness of the soul that can result from the denial of important human values.
In contrast to the cold, intellectual approach of a director like Michael Haneke, whose recent work has shown an increasingly patronising tendency to hector and browbeat the viewer into taking a calculatedly predetermined and politically-correct stance, Dumont is not interested in presenting the viewer with a morally instructive puzzle to solve. An intellectualised or rationalised response to Flanders is completely inappropriate - the film must simply be felt. That’s certainly a refreshingly unique approach in modern European arthouse cinema at the moment, but it doesn’t make Flanders or indeed any of Bruno Dumont’s films any easier to watch. Surprisingly however, the clouds clear briefly at the end of the film and if it’s not exactly uplifting there is at least a sense that redemption is still possible. It’s not much to grasp onto, but in a Bruno Dumont film you take what little comfort you can get, and it makes Flanders a much better film than might otherwise have been the case.
Flanders (Flandres) is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Much of the impact of Flanders depends on the sensations presented by the audio and visual tone of the film and Soda Pictures’ transfer manages to capture this very well indeed. There may be a little bit of edge-enhancement and low-level noise visible in the French countryside scenes, but otherwise this part of the film is very impressive, particularly in terms of colouration, deep contrast and accurate skin tones. The Tunisian desert scenes however show up the slight softness in the image and a hint of grain that develops into mosquito noise in the sky of one or two scenes. There are no marks or flaws in the print however and little evidence of compression artefacts. By and large the transfer succeeds admirably in retaining the necessary tone of the film.
There is only a Dolby Digital 2.0 audio option, which proves to be adequate but not exceptional for the demands of the soundtrack. Sounds and dialogue come across fine, but are a little on the dull side.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font. They translate the film very well.
A 47-minute Making of and a Director's Q&A were advertised for the DVD on most on-line retailer sites, but other than the standard Soda Trailer Reel the only extra feature on the disc is a Director Masterclass (39:55), recorded in London for the Rendez-vous with French Cinema, 2007. It’s not professionally filmed and can be hard to watch – if the camera isn’t fixed statically on Dumont’s head-and shoulders for the whole of the interview, it aimlessly floats around and focuses on his hands. Furthermore, since he is being simultaneously translated into English, the director’s delivery is broken up into small phrases, so it can also be difficult to listen to. However, Dumont patiently works through the restrictions and has a lot of interesting things to say about his filmmaking approach. As well as covering his background, his studies in philosophy, his industrial films and the difficulties of getting a film made when he has little concern for screenplays, Dumont goes through each of his films one-by-one, explaining how he approached them, his initial intentions and how they eventually turned out the way they did. An essential feature of great interest to anyone interested in the director’s work.
Harsh, brutal, and at times simply painful to watch, Flanders explores several themes that have preoccupied Bruno Dumont in his previous troubling, unsettling and often controversial films. Whether he moves those themes any further along however or just remains fixated on personal and provincial obsessions that have little relevance to a wider audience remains debatable, but his relentless depictions of the dark side of human nature and its base impulses makes Flanders - winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2006 – just as horribly compelling as his previous work. The Soda Pictures UK DVD release presents the film very well indeed and supports it with an essential masterclass featurette by the director.