War isgrim; so is life in rural Flanders.
That'sthe message most audiences are going to take from Bruno Dumont's love letter - oris it hate mail - to the area of north-eastern France where the director of L'Humanitewas born and still lives.
Criticalreaction after Flandres' Cannes competition screeningwas split (as always with Dumont) between those who consider the director to bea visionary champion of the inarticulate working-class and others who see hisflat, dirty, tell-it-like-it-is realism as just another brand of chillycinematic mannerism.
Distributorswill be equally torn, but there is an arthouse audience for Dumont, and Flandres' topical war scenes may well push the film beyond Twentynine Palms scattershot territorial coverage and downbeat box office.
Despitesome grisly war footage, including a nasty gang rape scene, this is a mellowerand in some respects more conventional exercise than any of Dumont's previousthree features.
Butwithout the grinding sexual anomie of Twentynine Palms to distract us, Dumont's central problem is exposed: how to portray theugly lives of emotionally paralysed characters without making an ugly,emotionally paralysed film'
TheFlanders of the title is no rural idyll. This is a place of scrappy workingfarms, muddy, ill-kempt yards, breeze-block sheds with rusty corrugated ironroofs.
AndreDemester (Samuel Boidin), a stocky, shy withdrawn young man, is one of thosewho work the land here.
Hetrudges around, looks at people warily through deep-set eyes, and doesn't talkmuch.
He andneighbouring farm girl Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) seem to be an item, in that theygo for walks and have perfunctory, joyless sex.
Butsad, pretty Barbe likes to play the turnip field, and she's soon doing it inthe car with another guy from the village, Blondel (Henri Cretel).
Dumontcertainly knows how to convey the flavour, or stink, of a place: direct light,over-amplified sound and his against-the-current use of the scope format tode-romanticise his subjects work with the director's trademark long takes tothrust this raw world in our face so that we can almost smell the manure.
Calledup to fight in some war (he doesn't know which one, he tells a farmhand), Andreleaves with Blondel and some of the other guys from the village.
It's ameasure of the emotional frigidity of Dumont's Flanders that only fiveembarrassed relatives turn up to see off twice that number of young men as theyleave in the army truck.
Shoton location in Tunisia, the war scenes are set in an undefined Arab elsewhere,a place of bare mountains, ruined houses and the occasional palm-lined wadi.
Itcould be Iraq, or Afghanistan; putting a name to the conflict, or explainingits rationale, doesn't interest Dumont. We see Andre leave on a mission with acommander and five other village companions, an anachronistic cavalry patrolamidst the tanks and helicopters.
Perhapswe're supposed to recall the fact that the land Andre tilled back home, cuttingdeep furrows with his tractor, was the killing fields of two world wars'
As sooften with Dumont, it's a take-it-or-leave-it suggestion.
Shotat by snipers in a blasted city, Andre and his companions lose their commandingofficer (one of few signs of army back-up is when his charred remains are takenaway by a helicopter).
Afterflushing out and killing the underage gunmen, this dwindling band of distantbrothers wanders the parched land, getting picked off one by one.
Theyfind a woman - possibly a combatant - and gang rape her.
Andrejoins in: as inarticulate and closed up within himself as ever, its impossibleto tell what he's feeling. Yves Cape's photography becomes almost epic in someof these widescreen desert scenes, contrasting with the increasingbrutalitisation of the soldiers.
Therhythm is: horror, scenic pause, horror, scenic pause.
Meanwhile,back in Flanders, Barbe has discovered she's pregnant with Blondel's child, anddecides to have an abortion. Then she goes crazy and ends up in a institutionfor a while.
Emotionsand traumas come to these characters like thunderstorms in a clear sky; maybethis is deliberate, or maybe Dumont likes his non-professional actors to giveslightly stilted performances.
Theeffect, however, is numbing: if we don't believe that there's anything bottledup inside, the outpouring, when it comes, is going to feel forced.
Plotclosure was never Dumont's forte, but the false catharsis of Flandres is his worst yet. The director spends 89 minutes challenging the Hollywoodrule about the hero's move towards self-awareness; but his catenaccio defencefalls apart just before the final whistle.
France. 2005. 92 mins.
Arte France Cinema
CRRAV Nord - Pas de Calais