A smattering of 40-somethings wait for the latest from Bruno Dumont. They do their best to get comfortable in the 4/5ths empty theater, the back of the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco. The French Cinema Now series brings Hors Satan to us for two screenings only, and it’s hard to know when the film will be back on the big screen. I’ve brought a date. We’re the youngest people in the room.
It takes Dumont about 30 seconds to create a cinematic church inside which worship is both impossible and irresistible.
Dumont’s films are fertilizing critical mold online: an aura of distaste, accusations of smelly pretension. It’s hard to tell where from specifically. The impression one gets is that they are the “cultural vegetables” Dan Kois told us all about in the NY Times (last-last Summer.)
Maybe no one is watching these movies. Dumont is one of the most compulsively watchable writer-directors in recent memory. His shots often resemble cosmological staring contests, containing layers of visual gameplay that collide violently with the shots around them. Even when a mystery seems to have resolved itself narratively, visually it returns to haunt the action. Dumont tackles the uncharted depths of paradox with enviable calm, enviable clarity, and enviable enthusiasm. If he were unclear all of this would be unbearable.
I think Jonathan Romney (over at London Review of Books) is trying to be positive when he says Hors Satan represents “ ‘slow cinema’ at its rawest and most austerely uncommunicative.” One can only reply: compared to what? More austerely uncommunicative than Taken 2, Looper, Seven Psychopaths, or Chasing Mavericks? Maybe it’s unfair to grab a smattering of recent releases, unrelated except in their united commitment to tedium (which approaches provocation in its extremity.) And maybe the word “austere” really is beyond reclaiming. If so, I’ll settle to call these recent “commercial” releases exuberantly uncommunicative, passionately uncommunicative, or colorfully, eagerly meaningless.
Yes, it’s fair to expect to walk away from any Dumont film with more questions than answers. But this doesn’t make the film uncommunicative or “opaque.” Most Hollywood releases manage to stumble through a single coherent question/answer in 90 minutes. And we can be certain that the question will be a familiar one, and that the answer will be a conventional and conservative one.
If the question is fresh, or if the question is sufficiently interesting, who needs an answer? Who even wants an answer? Hors Satan has an abundance of questions. It states a few and begs more. Maybe the frustration is that articulating the questions is so difficult. But if you could articulate them, Bruno Dumont would probably be able to as well. And if Bruno Dumont could articulate the questions in Hors Satan, making the movie would be a Hollywood endeavor. Or else a painfully shrill sermon from the avant-garde. It would be unbearable.
Have we really come so far, that to ask messy questions in the cinema is to be “un-commercial?”
But getting back to the bafflingly lukewarm critical response surrounding Hors Satan, I would be totally negligent if I didn’t give you at least one hilarious quote from the Rob Nelson’s review, writing for Variety (that authoritative commentator on the art house.) “[Hors Satan] contains only a dozen ‘dramatic’ events, but they all register indelibly, such is the director’s talent for making the minor appear momentous- and maybe religious.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Only a dozen?! One dozen?! Where is the drama?! What Rob Nelson is probably missing: events of “melodramatic” weight. As for dramatic events, Dumont’s film blisters with them. Hors Satan explodes with dramatic events.
An unseen character knocks, and several moments pass before the door is opened. One character draws a sharp breath as they crawl over a dune. A dog wanders to a sleeping man’s camp, and circles him for several moments before he wakes. These are moments of infinite and crushing drama. But Nelson is totally right to address a scarcity of “events,” because this film features no divorces, no wars between men and alien robots, no spy-craft, and no time-travel. Yes, Dumont’s latest is a wasteland. What is there to care about? Hors Satan just seems to be about humans living on earth, caught between cruelty and faith. Caught up in their own lives, while the lives of others rage on.
What’s fascinating: the way in which Dumont reclaims the “event” period. His stories hold up moments of character action, or else of character fear- character trembling- and study the nature of these moments as “happenings.” He and cinematographer Yves Cape have such a knack for finding the infinite weight of “happenings” in the natural world that they nourish our souls. (In that sense, maybe they are “cultural vegetables.”) They feed our natural but repressed suspicion that the world is incredible, is strange, is brutal, is beautiful, is frightening. I’m pretty sure this is what Nelson refers to when he refers to Dumont’s talent for “making the minor appear momentous- and maybe religious.” Of course, the minor is momentous. Our culture’s major filmmaking machine just refuses to reflect it any longer. Fantasy: the new default. Reality: scarce.
Maybe Hors Satan’s approach, its reclaiming of the event as meaningful, nourishes us because most new Hollywood films confuse causality with drama so criminally and so often. Hollywood believes that by rapidly charting the why behind every moment in a momentous plot, they can grow a great story. We will care if we understand why. It’s not true (witness the gargantuan, unfriendly plot machine of Nolan’s Inception– a film so bleak that viewers had to relegate it to the realm of gimmickry and cheap puzzles: “didja get it? I did.”)
The Hollywood approach often yields a parade of events- a blizzard of events. But none of them constitute anything, and we always forget them all the moment we’ve left the theater. Sooner or later, summoning the energy required to “care” about any of the latest Iron Man’s promised multitude of events, will prevent us from paying to see it. I don’t think the day is far off. Not at all. Not when Bruno Dumont’s films are so much more watchable in every way. It takes only minutes to care about the lives of his characters. That’s drama.