Along with the Dardenne brothers, Bruno Dumont is the current darling of the Cannes crowd. L'Humanité (1999) took three prizes, although it missed out on the Golden Palm, and his latest, Flanders, also picked up the Grand Prize of the Jury. Much like the Dardennes, Dumont specialises in slow paced tales of trivial, mundane lives using non-professional actors. These are the kind of films likely to divide audiences and critics alike, and I have to admit myself that I wasn't totally convinced by the first Dumont film I've seen.
The main basis of the film concerns the barely-existant relationship between Demester (Samuel Boidin), a young farmhand, and Barbe (Adelaide Leroux), the local girl of loose morals, let's say. It's tentative, uncommunicative, and their sex that usually occurs in damp fields is silent, quick, unerotic and apparently devoid of any pleasure whatsoever. There's no affection or tenderness, and their mutual ambivalence about their relationship - characterised when Demester publicly denies that he and Barbe are involved, encourages her promiscuity with another local man, Blondel (Henri Cretel). The three then maintain a fairly uneasy relationship thereafter.
Everything changes when both Demester and Blondel are conscripted and sent to fight a war that isn't named, though is undoubtedly Iraq. What Dumont then pursues is a juxtaposition of images and mood between the hell of war and the relative idyll of their rural village. Dumont focuses on the psychological effects of war, especially in an environment where women are absent. Attacked by child snipers, they exact revenge, killing both. Civilian women are raped, and the entire regiment embark on a barbaric crusade of senseless violence against those they've been sent to fight, though mostly against the innocent. Not that the violence is quite so one-sided of course. Dumont shows exactly what revenge is extracted against them by their enemies - men are tied and dragged whilst naked or killed in the most brutal of fashions. All the while at home, Barbe continues to sleep around and has a complete mental breakdown. There's clearly supposed to be a correlation between these events, and when both are reunited, there is a sense of normality returning, though both have been scarred by events. Tellingly, Demester is now able to tell Barbe that he loves her.
I'm sure some might describe Dumont's work as Bressonian in its sparseness and naturalism, though I don't think it's comparable on any level of quality. Bresson shows humanity at work and that there is hope. Dumont shows no hope and seems intent on giving his audience a complete downbeat experience. 'Flanders' wants to be insightful and shows that indeed "war is hell", but for what purpose? People in Dumont's universe are barren and without hope, and his dispassionate focus upon these lives of nothingness become tiring after too long and this film barely clocks in at 90 minutes. I'm not sure whether it wants to be a film about war or a film about rural hopelessness. Either way, I didn't find it overly convincing. 2.5/5