Wednesday, 11 July 2007

flandres (dir. dumont)

Dumont comes garlanded as the bleakest of the new bleak. His films lay bare the blank canvas of modernity, where humans are dehumanised, life is oncemore nasty, brutish and short.

Flandres tells the tale of Demester, a young farm labourer, played with bovine assiduousness by Samuel Boidin. Demester has perfunctory sex with the farm owners daughter, Barbe. He seems incapable of understanding what love or tenderness might mean. He is sent to fight in 'the' war, which is taking place in an unnamed Arabic state. There his colleagues kill, rape and degrade the enemy, and are in turn killed and degraded by the same enemy, upon their capture. Demester somehow survives and returns to Flanders to find that Barbe accuses him of killing his fellow soldier, because she had become pregnant by him. He admits the charges, then discovers feelings of love for her.

Along the way there are scenes of rape, castration, abortion and 'hell' as Demester finally describes the war. The director does not appear to want to give his audience an easy ride. Iraq and the pointlessness of our lives are to the forefront of his agenda, and the title and the setting imply that modernity has given us little in the near century since that other senseless bout of killing on the French fields.

And yet... Flandres is curiously watchable. It is not a difficult experience. In these graphic times we are used to extreme imagery, and Dumont never quite succeeds in shocking us. It's true that the early 'farm' scenes are slow, but as soon as the action of war kicks in, the narrative flies along at a lick. In a recent interview, Dumont expressed his hopes to one day make a movie with Tom Cruise, and given the action of Flandres this seems less absurd than I had expected it too.

There's more than a touch of that dry ironist Houllebecq in Dumont's take on the world, albeit a slightly soft-soap Houllebecq, as its hard to see the writer coming up with such a sentimental pay-off. If the director is seeking to portray the bleakness of contemporary living, he's going to have to try a little harder. However, if Flandres is a parable for the way in which there is a residue of humanity and love to be found in even the most embattled, then this film succeeds. At the end we realise that this has not been a tale of insanity and war, rather a touching love story between two misfits, who are left with the rest of their lives to explore what this bizarre but most humane of feelings might mean.

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