Cast: Samuel Boidin, Adelaide Leroux, Henri Cretel, Jean-Marie Bruveart
After US art house horror Twentynine Palms (2003) Bruno Dumont returns to the rural north French town of his upbringing and the setting for his previous two ventures, debut Le Vie de Jesus (1997) and the Cannes Grand Prix decorated L’Humanite (1999). Flanders focuses upon stoic farmer Demester (Boidin) and the promiscuous Barbe (Leroux). After his public denial of their physical yet emotionally ambivalent relationship she gets involved with another local, Blondell (Cretel) who, like the central protagonist, has been conscripted for national service.
The narrative may sound like one dealing in Hollywoodgeneric concepts, potentially The Deer Hunter (1978) crossed with Jules et Jim (1961), but as such this isn’t really a traditional war film. The war, shot inTunisia, remains unspecified, lacking any political, social or geographical context although looks to have currentMiddle East origins. Opening with a lengthy fight between Briche (Bruveart) and an African colleague, the section shows the brutality of modern warfare acting as a catalyst to release dormant but instinctive, primal urges.
The director’s breadth leads him to aspire towards an Italian Neo Realist ideology, emulating Rossellini and Pasolini’s meditations on human nature and that of simply “being”. Like the aforementioned, accusations of little occurring in terms of story could be applied validly to Flanders. Refuting linear dynamics to drive the plot on, matters unravel at their own pace. Stylistically this pared-down tone is complimented via sumptuously composed long shots where the landscape seemingly holds more gravitas than its inhabitants. Psychological foundations for character motivation are never alluded to, dialogue scenes occasionally shedding rare chinks of light but the overwhelming tone is of pained detachment.
However, it would be grossly unfair to derideDumont’s film solely on these grounds and condemn it as a richly shot yet empty canvas. His is a film where an anguished brief glance reverberates due to the air of alienation. The use of non-professional actors enables such moments to deliver a cutting potency, their raw instincts capture an unforced purity, best represented in a close-up on the face of a young boy, bullet in the head, the camera cutting to Blondell and Demester’s reaction. Dumont’s visual arts background is apparent in the stark bruised-beauty he invests in close-ups, the most commanding being the clenched fist of a raped female soldier.
Briche says to Demester “There are innocents in every war”, a comment that functions not only in its general guise but as an analogy of Flanders world view perspective. In the final scene Demester lies maternally next to Barbe, a moment of physical contact that goes beyond the mechanical perfunctory sex of before, one that appears to offer some form of solace, but this is a hollow hope. The war will never end. Dumont’s film is impenetrable at times in its austerity, powerfully emotive in others. A clinically provocative treatise on our ambiguous existence that raises as many questions as it attempts to answer.