Samuel Boidin (left), Adélaïde Leroux, and director Bruno Dumont at Cannes 2006
France (91 mi) 2006 ‘Scope d: Bruno Dumont
Location, location, location is everything in Bruno Dumont films, opening this film in familiar territory, as he has done in all three of his films shot in France, conjuring up his home town of Bailleul in Flanders near the Belgium border, with an almost SATANTANGO-like opening, hearing only the natural sounds of a rural farm as the camera peeks around corners of a barn or stares off into the distant horizon past a vast landscape of well ploughed farmland, where as far as the eye can see is the faint outline of a town with church steeples rising high above anything else. The pillars of morality are a constant reminder looming off in the distance. But what we are witness to here is anything but moral, as a promiscuous young girl Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) sneaks off into the woods or into the barn for 30 second fucks with a strangely Neanderthal, nearly non-verbal guy, André Demester (Samuel Boidin, who was also in THE LIFE OF JESUS), neither showing any affection or satisfaction of any kind, instead it’s just a break in a stifling routine of boredom in her case or chores in his, as he otherwise spends all day ploughing the fields or shoveling pig manure. Perhaps because she can, a new guy is invited to enter the picture, and Barbe becomes infatuated with hanging out with them both, but she displays more overt affection for the new guy, which leads to an internalized slow burn of jealousy and resentment in Demester of an almost biblical proportion. Everything is filmed with Dumont’s ominously slow pace where every foreshadowing scene feels like grim foreboding.
Once more, using the Bressonian template, it’s not about the acting, as Dumont is known for his brilliant use of offscreen sounds and for using non-professionals, whose silent expressionless gazes could be interchangeable throughout his films. The opening fifteen minutes is all about the sounds of feet walking through the mud, or trampling down a country road or through the brush, allowing the camera to dwell on shots of feet, slowly building a rhythm of bleak monotony. Oblique reference is made to a letter Demester received, which instructs him to report for military duty to fight in a war he knows nothing about, not even where it is, but it’s his letter of introduction to join the war on terror. Strangely, Barbe’s other friend will join him as they are both ushered into a foreign country of unknown origins that features Arabic speaking, dark skinned people, a stand in for Afghanistan or Iraq (shot in Tunisia). Immediately we witness fisticuffs between black and white soldiers on the same side, with the white man asserting his dominance, which is the new world order, the pre-condition for 21st century wars fought by highly developed industrialized nations against impoverished third world countries. The white dominated nations always establish their military strength with a brazen display of superior sophisticated weaponry (shock and awe), but it doesn’t help them much, as they are fighting a war against an unseen enemy. Exquisitely shot by Yves Cape, there’s a gorgeous John Ford-like panoramic shot across a vast desert expanse with low lying mountains dotting the landscape, utterly beautiful, with six heavily armed men crawling across this emptiness on horses, reduced to just barely seen dots on the screen. When we move in close, all we see is the movement of the horse’s hooves.
What follows is a breakdown in moral order, where murder and rape are acceptable conditions of war, perpetrated by the men in Demester’s unit in which he is a willing participant. But the intensity of war is brilliantly demonstrated in short order as we are witnessing the slaughter of men by unseen forces, very similar to the searingly intense scenes in FULL METAL JACKET (1987), perhaps intentionally so, using that same kind of austere filmmaking style of Kubrick, where everything in the frame is surgically precise, exactly where it's supposed to be. An abrupt tonal shift in battle confidence takes place from being top cock on the block to instantly being the hunted, dehumanized, shamed, and brutalized in retaliation for the horrors they themselves inflicted without so much as batting an eye. The overriding mood is one of insane fear, as the inexplicable reality of death hovers over every man, even the ones who survive. The brutality of war is shown on dual fronts, both home and abroad, shifting abruptly between continents and even psychological wavelengths to establish how externalized violence gets internalized like secondhand smoke, the kind of devastating anguish that may linger around for years to come or even for the rest of your life, while the actual bomb blast or rifle shot takes place in mere seconds. It’s a shocking depiction of how we are all implicated and harmed, no one is spared, not even in this sleepy rural farmland, the site of some of the worst fighting in WWI, but where decades of uninterrupted peace seem like light years from the traumatic horrors that inhabit the front lines of war. The film lacks the unique insight or originality of his earlier films, but does a much better job implicating the everyday, ordinary citizens into what has become the overriding world condition, the war on terror, perhaps leading us to a place where we’ve already been, but through a different path we've never taken before.