War front or home front, it's all pretty grim in 'Flanders'
Bruno Dumont's "Flanders " splits its time between combat and home front. While boy flees sniper fire in the desert, girl has sex with a stranger. In her defense, she lives in a small farming community in the film's namesake region, and before the war called, she could have sex with one of her two boyfriends. But she's been reduced to this.
In the desert, so much time with other men has taken its toll on them, too. So they take part in the gang- rape of an Arab woman. It would be nice to report that "Flanders" is a powerful film of suffering and sacrifice and desperation. But it's vacuous, banal, and, where its mix of sentiment and grisliness is concerned, rather despicable.
Beginning with 1997's hypnotic "Life of Jesus " and culminating with 1999's "L'Humanité ," a procedural with a soulful underpinning, Dumont's four movies walk the line between visual inspiration and minimalist idiocy. Sometimes less is a lot. Sometimes less is enough. Here it's just less.
"Flanders" begins with trudges along sodden earth. The work boots belong to Andre (Samuel Boidin ), a hulking, taciturn farmer who's about to leave for war. Before he goes, Barbe (Adelaide Leroux ) takes him for a walk, pulls her pants down, and lets him on top of her. What we're inclined to see as a generous (if speedy) going-away present turns out to be a compulsion for Barbe. Right in front of Andre at the local bar, she asks out a stranger, who agrees to take her home. They don't get farther than the parking lot, where we hear her moaning with the sort of dramatic ecstasy that was missing from her encounter with Andre.
Unseasoned acting is a staple of every Dumont enterprise, but as the car Andre is in pulls out of that lot, Boidin does put across some combination of shame and wonder and disappointment. You feel for him. You feel even more the following day when the fellow (Henri Cretel ) who gave Boidin's performance a moment of perceptible feeling drops by to say they'll be serving together. Not only that, Barbe will sit between them at a camp fire and turn on the waterworks before she makes out with both young men on the eve of their departure.
Dumont is a European director of the being-and-nothingness school. The nothingness in "Flanders" is maddening. While the film jerks between Barbe at home and the boys at war in their desert fatigues, the movie seems desperate for timelines or meaning or commentary. Any sort of higher point is hard to discern, but the movie's bathos seems meant to suggest Dumont has one. His previous picture, "Twentynine Palms," brought similar shenanigans to American soil -- the inconsequential sex, anyway. By the time one of that movie's lovers announced to his lady friend, "I want to see you pee," we were at least in for something teasingly foul, despite its crushing emptiness. In "Flanders," war is meant to signify all the usual horrors, but only in the most generic sense, since we don't know where this war is or where it's being fought. The production notes say Andre and company are in a "far off land," as though there's a battle to be fought in Oz. Those scenes were shot in Tunisia, and they're well photographed (Yves Cape did the cinematography).
But handsome panoramas are rarely Dumont's problem. People are. They don't think or wonder or perceive. Dumont prefers passive vessels. So his stabs at anguish feel bogus. By the time Barbe, who was already enough of a cliché, has made it all the way to a mental institution "Flanders" has become a joke. This is not a film of youth or wisdom -- it's not even a film of real intelligence. And so we flit between war and relative peace, with no insight or feeling or compelling style. The violence seems to grab Dumont. But the sex leaves him cold -- us, too. The bodies here are spread as indifferently atop each other as peanut butter on jelly.