Hors Satan

Hors Satan

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

An unnamed, taciturn vagrant (David Dewaele) is camping out by a beach on the margins of a rural village on the 'Opal Coast'. He spends his days walking - and praying - in the great outdoors. Although he is occasionally hassled by a local ranger (Christophe Bon) or the police, for the most part he is accepted by this small community, which gives him food, launders his clothes and occasionally calls on his services as a healer.

He befriends a black-clad young local woman (Alexandre Lemâtre) who has fallen in love with him, and takes direct, violent action against the other men, including her own stepfather, who give her unwanted sexual attention - even as he repeatedly rebuffs her advances himself. He will, however, prove, through a series of quiet miracles, to be both her – and the village's – salvation.


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Much as Bruno Dumont's previous film Hadewijch reimagined the story of a fanatical 13th century mystic in a modern, decidedly post-9/11 French setting, his latest places a Christ-like figure in today's northern France, and calmly observes the strange ripples caused by his presence. Shot wide, with sparse dialogue and no musical score to accompany its soundscape of natural ambient sounds, Hors Satan offers up a sequence of unusual, even impossible, events, all presented with the 'objectivity' of documentary realism - or at least with the distanced aesthetics of 'slow cinema'.

Walking on water, the healing of the sick, the resurrection of the dead – all these New Testament miracles are reconfigured here, but without any accompanying sermon to lend them an explicit moral dimension. The effect is to leave interpretation entirely to the viewer, even as Dumont, right from the title (literally 'Beyond Satan'), throws in all manner of provocations to keep us ethically unnerved.

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For a start, one of the vagrant's first acts is to shoot dead his friend's abusive stepfather – "we did what we had to do," he will later comment – and he will beat another character unconscious in punishment for actions that were, at least on the surface, morally ambiguous rather than straightforwardly reprehensible. And while he remains entirely chaste in his interactions with the young woman, his healing of a catatonic girl is made to resemble a child rape, while his casual outdoor sex with a passing backpacker (Aurore Broutin) unsettles in its coupling of animalistic explicitness with something more ineffably transcendent – as though we are unsure whether we are witnessing an exorcism, or a possession, or a sanctification.

Just what are we to make of this peculiar traveler with his unearthly powers? Is he the second coming of God incarnate, or something more menacingly demonic and destructive, or does he occupy a moral space – as perhaps the title suggests – beyond good and evil? Hors Satan poses these questions, and then leaves the answers up to its viewers – and in the mismatch of its blankly naturalistic style and its unquestionably supernatural events, the film confronts us with the moral openness of our own secularism. For even as Dumont demands our moral judgment, he also exposes how ill equipped we are to bring the sort of theological certainty that such material requires. The result is a jarringly odd mix of dull and disturbing that comes with its own quasi-religious frisson for a jaded age.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2011
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Enigmatic drama about the relationship between a woman and a mysterious outsider on Northern France's Opal Coast.
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Director: Bruno Dumont

Writer: Bruno Dumont

Starring: David Dewaele, Alexandre Lemâtre, Christophe Bon, Juliette Bacquet, Aurore Broutin, Sonia Barthelemy, Valerie Mestdagh, Dominique Caffier

Year: 2011

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: France

Festivals:

London 2011

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