DVD Review: 'Hors Satan'

★★★★☆
Divisive filmmaker Bruno Dumont is no stranger to spirituality, and can hardly be accused of fence-sitting with Hors Satan (Outside Satan, 2011), which arrives on DVD this week courtesy of New Wave Films. Whilst the auteur's defiant opacity may put some cinephiles off, he's once again crafted an unmissable, morally-complex experience. Using little-known actors to portray his characters, Dumont creates a challenging but nevertheless compelling narrative which seeks to examine the murky synergy of good and evil - all present within Hors Satan's enigmatic protagonist, simply referred to as 'the guy' (the late David Dewaele).

Sleeping rough on the outskirts of a small coastal hamlet in Pas-de-Calais, 'the guy' ('le gars') wanders the stark landscapes akin to some messianic embodiment of nature's amorality. Here, a young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre) confides in him about her abusive stepfather. When it's claimed that she simply cannot take any more it prompts a swift and violent solution from her new protector. Inclined to silent, kneeling prayer towards his natural surroundings - a sunset, the sea etc. - the enigmatic stranger enters the local community like some kind of nomadic sage.

After abetting in the girl's brutal release, the two embark on an unconventional relationship together. Conversation remains minimal, and Dewaele's oddball rebuffs his companion's sexual advances, but the two remain attached as they trample across the neighbouring countryside. Any grim authenticity on display is distorted by the unreal, amoral world that the characters inhabit, our anti-hero never truly subject to the consequences of his abhorrent crimes. In addition, Dumont's crisp aesthetic sensibilities, Yves Cape's eerily beautiful cinematography and Dewaele and Lemâtre's stilted performances all enhance the film's abstraction.

Further acts are carried out with breathtaking impunity; the bizarre exorcism of a local girl; a life-changing sexual encounter with a hiker; another violent outburst leaving a local man grievously injured, if not dead. Each of the drifter's actions, however, result in some form of cosmic justice and appear to transform or improve the life of another. The ambiguity of our protagonist's position, his power and his motives delve into the impenetrable fog surrounding the malleability of morality.

By the film's gripping conclusion, the suggestion is embedded that heinous and admirable acts are in fact one and the same. Those in favour of lighter fare - or simply a world cinema feature with more explicit narrative logic - may want to steer clear of this one. On the other hand, if it's a tough philosophical and spiritual examination you're after, Dumont's Hors Satan is certainly worth its salt.

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Ben Nicholson

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