(Bruno Dumont, France, 2006) 91 minutes


Director: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb
Screenplay: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Yves Cape
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Adelaide Leroux (Barbe)
Samuel Boidin (Andre Demester)
Henri Cretel (Blondel)
Jean-Marie Bruweart (Briche)
David Poulain (Leclerq)
Patrice Venant (Mordac)

Reviews and notes

2006 Cannes [Grand Prix], Toronto, London, Pusan
2007 San Francisco
2008 World Cinema Showcase (Wellington)

Following on from his nightmarish American road movie 29 Palms, writer/director Bruno Dumont returns to his native Northern French soil for Flanders, a spare, challenging and ultimately moving account of war's brutalising impact upon combatants and civilians alike. Powerfully acted by a non-professional cast, this impressively shot film tells the story of Demester (Samuel Boidin), a brooding young farmer, who's conscripted to fight in an unnamed war, leaving behind his lover Barbe (Adelaide Leroux).
- Tom Dawson, BBC, 4 July 2007

Ten years ago, the French director Bruno Dumont embarked on a film-making career that shocked, disorientated, provoked and divided opinion. La Vie de Jésus, in 1997, was a study of disaffected young white men in the provincial northern France in which Dumont grew up. It was about the ferocious racial tension between one of these and the Arab man who appears to be a rival for his girlfriend. It contains what I still think is the coldest and most brutal sex scene I have ever seen that is not actually supposed to be a rape. Two years later, he produced his bizarre masterpiece, portentously named L'Humanité: a bad dream presented in the form of a realist, procedural thriller. It was about the murder of a young girl in the same remote French badlands, and was jeered at for being self-important by many when it was unveiled at Cannes - though I found it deeply disturbing.

After this, Dumont just lost me. And he lost almost everyone else, too, with his empty and boorish adventure in the Californian desert, Twentynine Palms (2003), a piece of semi-improvised gibberish topped off with some obligatory sexual violence, contrived in the cause of keeping it real. Dumont appeared to have entirely abandoned the compelling visual sense and native idiom that made his first two films so gripping. Now he has returned to his home turf with a strange, atmospheric, violent parable about our current military adventures.

Flanders has the same strange realist-dream aspect of L'Humanité, and is set in the same beautifully shot countryside, populated by glowering locals, giving the movie a kind of Deliverance feel, yet with no outsiders to persecute. Demester (Samuel Boidin) is a heavy-set, saturnine guy who works on a farm, though whether he owns it or his family owns it is one of many details never explained. He has a very casual relationship with his girlfriend Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux): they have regular, joyless al fresco sex by the hedgerows, but one night in the pub she is upset by Demester casually denying, in front of her, that they are a couple. Barbe goes off with a complete stranger, Blondel (Henri Cretel), and has sex with him. The complicating factor is that Blondel and Demester have been called up to fight in a war overseas. They are to be comrades together in a terrifying battle situation, in which the inhuman brutality they show to civilian insurgents rebounds on them many times over: a nightmare that unfolds in parallel with lonely Barbe's emotional breakdown at home.

Which war, though? Afghanistan? Iraq? It's never clear. Dumont's war scenes are shot in Tunisia, whose landscape looks slightly more exotic than either country. And why are these men being called up? Is it an alternative reality picture of France, a France as mired in the Middle Eastern war as Britain or America - in fact, so mired that conscription is necessary? Or perhaps a vision of a not-too-distant future in which all EU countries will become drawn into the contest? It could, conversely, be a metaphor for white France and its tension with the Arab communities - an elaboration, or externalisation, of the same race war that Dumont described in La Vie de Jésus.

There are more intriguing things that do not quite make real-world sense: when Demester, Blondel and the other men arrive in that unnamed far-off country, they walk through what appears to be a trench. A trench? Surely, trenches are not used in modern warfare in the Middle East? Could this detail resonate with the title, a suggestion that the film is about a new Flanders field, a Flanders field of the mind, a world war fought just as hard on the home front by civilians as well as those in uniform? It certainly never looks like a war movie in the traditional mould. In their numbness and alienation, the war scenes do not feel that much different from the home front, despite the horrible violence, the gunfire, the explosions, and the digitally created smudges of oil fires on the horizon; not dissimilar, in fact, to Sam Mendes' Gulf War movie Jarhead.

Flanders is vulnerable to the same criticisms levelled at Dumont's previous films, that his unhurried directorial emphasis produces a bovine slowness on the faces of his actors and that the pace is ponderous. However, the movie undoubtedly shows a great deal of the power of which Dumont was capable in his first two films. It's a return to form. He attacks his subject, and he attacks us, head-on, and he is one of the very few directors, of any nationality or genre, to challenge the realist tyranny of cinema: the unexamined consensus that cinema - where it does not label itself as fantastical or surreal - has to reproduce what is thought to be the real world. Flanders looks as if it is about Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet it is not, and fascinatingly, may not be about war at all, but is rather a meditation or hallucination on the subject of male sexual aggression, tricked out in military costume. Like Dumont's best work, it echoes uneasily in the mind.
- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 6 July 2007

Weblink: A review by Mick LaSalle

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