The other day I spoke with Film Center programmers Marty Rubin and Barbara Scharres to begin sussing out this major work and its ties to so-called religious filmmaking tradition. Our conversation follows the jump.
Marty Rubin: One thing that most impressed me in Hors Satan were the landscapes, how integral they seemed to be to the narrative. I imagine if you spent time with it, you could work out a logic to the locations: why [the characters are] in the sand dunes [versus] the marshes or the fields. They seem to form a certain a pattern. Also, I thought the two main [nonprofessional] actors were very good. Very restrained, but expressive performances that had to carry a lot with very little dialogue.
Ben Sachs: What struck me about the landscapes in the film is that they aren’t pretty—and yet they take up so much space, you almost feel like you’re being cheated. It’s like Dumont’s working against expectations of what landscapes are supposed to do in movies.
Rubin: They’re not picturesque, no, but they are beautiful in their way—it’s like how Robert Bresson’s shots could be beautiful. And Bresson, I gather, is one of Dumont’s reference points .
Sachs: He’s practically unavoidable when you’re talking about Dumont.
Barbara Scharres: To me, the landscapes convey the presence of this spiritual Other. It’s in the water, in the cornfields, the lily pads on the ponds . . . Everything about the landscapes seems to be imposing this presence. I mean, if this movie is [Dumont’s] statement supporting atheism, I think he failed miserably!
Rubin: It’s almost like pantheism. Le gars seems to have this connection to nature.
Scharres: Yeah, when he [and the heroine] take that prayerlike stance. It looks like certain practices in Islam . . .
Sachs: Or Orthodox Christianity, for that matter. It’s never clear what their religion is. It could be paganism.
Scharres: Exactly. It’s some higher power, and it’s open to interpretation. It’s not even clear whether it’s good or evil. But it’s out there and it’s almost an oppressive presence in the landscapes. I saw the film at its premiere at Cannes last year; it played in the Grand Theatre Lumière, whose screen is just so vast. You could really feel the mysterious force that this guy is channeling. And the scenes in the sand dunes, too, whatever this thing is, it’s creeping around there.
Scharres: But isn’t that what spiritual life is like? Faith doesn’t have an end point. There’s no payoff: if you have faith, you don’t just suddenly see God. And you don’t in the movie either. All you have is the sky, the earth . . . but those things never change—they’re permanent. That’s why I think [Hors Satan] isn’t strictly atheist.
Sachs: Could you talk a little more about the Cannes premiere? I heard the response was pretty contentious.
Scharres: It wasn’t one of those movies where people started booing at the end—or where one half of the theater’s applauding and the other half is booing. The audience was just like, “Well, that was another Bruno Dumont [film].”
Sachs: The big winners at Cannes last year were The Tree of Life and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which are much more reassuring in their spirituality. Maybe Hors Satan just didn’t fit the mood of the festival.
Rubin: I liked this a lot better than The Tree of Life. And it’s because it doesn’t give that reassurance—it doesn’t have people going to heaven and stuff like that. If you’re going to consider religious films as something like a genre, the most effective ones for me are going to be based—whether it’s coming from the religious side, the atheist side, or the agnostic side—on a tension between the knowledge of God and the possibility of the absence of God. That’s got to be the central question the film’s asking. And that’s what all the great spiritual filmmakers did, whether they were believers or not: Buñuel, Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and even Alfred Hitchcock in a film like I Confess.
Sachs: The interesting thing about Dumont’s career is that he’s evolved from a skeptical position to something more ambiguous. It’s like he’s growing open to the idea of affirmation, even if he doesn’t necessarily believe in it. Hadewijch [Dumont’s film prior to Hors Satan] seems like a turning point; there seems to be a greater curiosity to his work now.
Rubin: Although I like Hors Satan, I think I prefer Hadewijch. This film is more perfect; it’s more controlled. Hadewijch is unruly. It sometimes does things that are a bit forced; but overall, it’s richer.
Sachs: I think the difference is in the central character. Céline [the heroine of Hadewijch] is a more expressive character than the guy or the girl. These two don’t even have names; they’re practically allegorical figures.
Rubin: But I think the girl expresses a lot. If you look at the face of [Alexandra Lematre, who plays the girl], there’s a lot going on. There’s real tenderness and fear and bereavement. In a way, she colors the way we read le gars. Her reactions tend to fill in for the emotions we’re not getting from him.
Scharres: In both cases, you have a director completely shaping the performances without the input of professional actors. This lets him use the face in place of a performance—to create what he needs at any particular time.
Sachs: The Film Center recently held a Bresson retrospective, and the screenings were generally well attended. Do you feel like the belated acceptance of Bresson in America has paved the way for Hors Satan to find an audience here?
Rubin: I think it’s an open question. The movie’s a hard sell, to say the least, and Bresson’s appreciation took a long time. Now he’s reached this level of an old master that people admire and respect—in the audiences of our retrospective, the tone was very, very respectful . . . Actually, I was disappointed that people weren’t laughing at some of the work. Four Nights of a Dreamer, you know, can be very funny, but no one seemed ready to acknowledge that.
Sachs: Maybe there’s humor in Hors Satan too, and we’re just not seeing it yet.
Scharres: I don’t see a lot of audiences making the connection between Dumont and Bresson. I think Dumont gets his currency from his controversial reputation on the film festival circuit—this sort of “bad boy” reputation. That’s what people are responding to. They’re going because he’s one of those love-him-or-hate-him directors who’s going to offend or titillate them.
Sachs: Since Twentynine Palms (2002), though, it seems like he’s trying to move away from just provoking the audience.
Rubin: Well, he’s growing up; it happens to a lot of directors. But that’s what makes him one of the most interesting people making movies right now. He’s moving, but you don’t know what direction he’s going to take.