Running time: 91 minutes
Written and directed by: Bruno Dumont
Starring: Samuel Boidin, Adélaïde Leroux, Henri Cretel
Bruno Dumont’s Flanders, from his own screenplay (in French with English subtitles), opens up on a bleak, rural landscape in Northern France on the eve of an unspecified war in an unspecified French-African colony, in which a random military gang-rape committed against a native woman leads inexorably to the castration of a captive French soldier. Actually, the name “Flanders” evokes for me the trenches of World War I, but Mr. Dumont’s miniscule war with token horse cavalry and a token tank and platoon-size charges in mountainous terrain seems an ahistorical and allegorical device to depict the disorientation of any soldiers far from home, and the strains on the women they leave behind. This is not to say that I-R-A-Q springs immediately to mind: Mr. Dumont’s vision is too mordantly rustic and eccentrically French for that. His characters are as uncommunicatively inarticulate as Mr. von Trier’s chatterboxes in The Boss of It All are hysterically hyper-articulate.
Demester (Samuel Boidin) owns and operates a small farm and takes long, silent walks in the woods with his sweetheart, Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux). There they make love before Demester takes her home in his tractor. When Demester is called to war, however, Barbe has been impregnated by another man, Blondel (Henri Cretel), during a misunderstanding with Demester. The two men find themselves fighting alongside one other despite their mutual hostility. In one desperate rear-guard action, Blondel is wounded and left behind to die by Demester.
Back in Flanders, Barbe has suffered a nervous breakdown and is sent to a sanitarium by her father. When Demester returns home, he is stricken with remorse for abandoning a comrade in arms, but he and Barbe somehow come to terms with their mutual traumas in each other’s arms.
Mr. Dumont has won many film-festival prizes over the last ten years for Flanders, and three previous films, Twentynine Palms (2003), Humanité (1999), and The Life of Jesus (1997), none of which I’ve seen. From the evidence of Flanders, Mr. Dumont’s career demands further study on my part should the opportunity arise. But I kid you not: It is not an auteurist task I anticipate with joyous excitement. His sensibility is decidedly on the dark side of the moon, morose to the extreme, grimly and anti-erotically sensual—and yet with a redeeming compassion for his characters and an impressive grasp of cinematic expression.