In “Flandres,” the region referred to in the film’s title (located in northern France) is breathtaking in its untarnished beauty. The light — golden and buttery — drenches the landscape in an intricately magical, Vermeer-like way. There is, however, nothing remotely idyllic about the film itself; the main theme here seems to be that (contrary to what Jean Jacques Rousseau said) rustic reflections are not born from a rustic setting. Indeed, in “Flandres” no one seems to think or even converse much, relying on instinct alone to get through the day.
Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) has turned herself into the town slut, sleeping with every male who shows the slightest interest, engaging in brief, animal-like trysts in fields and inside barns. Her childhood friend Demester (Samuel Boidin) is no exception — though the pair seem to have feelings for each other beyond urges for instant copulation. Demester, however, lacks the inner resources to deal with, much less articulate, his feelings, and when someone asks him (in the town’s only cafe) whether Barbe is his girlfriend, he brusquely answers no. Barbe is capable of being hurt by such a remark, but she too lacks the means to express it, and she goes off to have more random sex just to spite Demester.
Things would have gone on like this forever, it seems, until a war in an unspecified destination (the scenes were shot in Tunisia) sweeps up and takes away most of the young men in Barbe’s town, including Demester.
The story then divides itself into two modes — despair and barbarism. In one world, Demester and the other soldiers in his unit fight and commit unspeakable atrocities (rape, killing children and the elderly), and back in the world of Flandres, Barbe — out of unrequited love or unsatisfied sex, gradually drives herself insane.
This is filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s fourth feature. Often compared to fellow French shockmeister Gaspar Noe and a critics’ favorite at Cannes (this one won the Grand Prix), Dumont once again pulls no punches. Unforgiving, relentless and sometimes irredeemably ugly, “Flandres” proceeds much like Demester’s tilling of his land: slowly, and with a single-minded dedication. The point isn’t whether you agree with Dumont’s world view, but whether the he succeeds in showing you what it is, and this he does with a brilliance that’s often harsh on the retina. Certainly, there’s enough carnage and carnality to fill a butcher shop in hell, and you can’t help wondering what it was that compelled the actors (none of them are professional) to do what Dumont instructed them to do in front of a camera. The lens stays fixed on their faces, and though Barbe has a certain lithe prettiness that offsets the Flanders countryside, the men in this film have the kind of raw, unpolished visages that are rarely seen in works of fiction — they literally look and behave like beasts.
What culminates from “Flandres” is the sheer, terrifying unawareness on the part of its characters. Demester and his friends never seem to ask themselves what repercussions their actions may have, and they actually seem surprised when one of the women they rape is angry enough to organize a militia rally and stage a gruesome revenge. (The protracted screams of the soldiers will remain in the ears for a long, long time.)
Demester’s unit is executed one by one, and in the end he is the sole survivor to make it back to Flandres, his farm and Barbe. Not that he has changed in any recognizable way — Demester picks up where he left off with the seeming ease of a dog settling into its den and continues to work on the land, have a beer at the cafe and sleep with Barbe. The way they engage in sex is horrible and demeaning — if nothing else, “Flandres” convinces you that for the sexual act to deserve the term “love-making,” there must be good measures of emotions, humility and tenderness. It just doesn’t bear watching, otherwise. To Dumont’s credit, “Flandres” isn’t a commentary on gender. Barbe is just as nihilistic as Demester, albeit taking a different approach. That she has no means to gauge the depth of her despair puts her on a different level from Demester though — at least she knows that some kind of sadness is eating away at her insides. In the end, however, a slice of salvation descends upon the pair like a gift from heaven and for the first time they are able to put their arms around each other and talk a bit. It’s a moment of truth and of love — one that has a raw, ungoverned impact on the senses that a thousand calculated love stories could never achieve. But what torture Dumont puts Barbe and Demester through to get here, what an assault he makes on the minds and visions of the viewers. Whether he’s justified or not remains an intriguing enigma.
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