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‘Doing what needs to be done’

04 January 2013

Stephen Brown sees an atheist film director's take on mysticism

On their knees: The Guy and The Girl pause for prayer in the striking landscape of Hors Satan

On their knees: The Guy and The Girl pause for prayer in the striking landscape of Hors Satan

BRUNO DUMONT's latest film, Hors Satan (Outside Satan) (Cert. 15), deals with the aftermath of a miracle. He doesn't believe in God, only in cinema. It is what allows us to catch a glimpse of and to feel the divine in man. "Mysticism", he asserts, "says 'Behold the earth and you shall see the sky.' Well, there you are, cinema can do that with all its devices."

Before making films, Dumont taught philosophy, although, in contrast with Oliver Edwards's attempts at the subject, cheerfulness rarely appears to break in. Not that this is a criticism; for, as in his previous feature Hadewijch (Arts, 17 February 2012) and its concern with Christian humility, so here his peering into the ordinary reveals intriguing supernatural manifestations.

Dumont attributes these interests to his admiration for Georges Bernanos, who wrote Diary of a Country Priest, which, incidentally, was later filmed by Robert Bresson, and whose style Hors Satan very strongly echoes. The characters don't even have names, being credited as The Guy (David Dewaele) and The Girl (Alexandra Lemâtre), who silently wander along the Opal Coast, near Boulogne. By my reckoning, it was five minutes six seconds before a word was uttered.

First, we had seen The Guy praying, as he continues to do throughout the film. The Girl initially perceives this loner almost as a mendicant friar returning spiritual favours for gifts of food. Shot in Cinemascope, the film treats us, literally, to a wide perspective, placing individual humans in the context of a near-enchanted countryside. While the protagonists are often seen at a distance, we still hear, as if in close-up, the sounds they emit - breathing, footsteps etc. It is as if to say that the couple leave their own mark on this pantheistic vision of the universe, one reinforced by acts of healing, as when The Guy returns the equivalent of Jairus's daughter from a catatonic state to fullness of life.

Given that more than once his remedy involves energetic sex, a whiff of D. H. Lawrence hovers over the entire film. Yet it would be simplistic to treat The Guy as a modern-day Christ-figure. His involvement with a world of grisly murders and rough justice puts paid to that notion. People, in Dumont's world, "do what needs to be done", as Dewaele's character couches it. It is not about good or evil. We are beyond Satan, beyond Christ.

Landscape and circumstances mould us, but so does all that praying in this movie. It isn't presented as a futile exercise, but rather a portal into a world to which humans need to be responsive.

When all is said and done, Dumont's attempt to offer a religionless mysticism is full of biblical imagery, astonishing to behold, but also owing much to Buddhism, Nietzsche, and, if truth be told, the Catholicism of Meister Eckhart and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

On release from today.

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