In the opening scenes of Bruno Dumont’s film Outside Satan (aka Hors Satan), a fist knocks on a door, and moments later the door opens partway and a hand emerges, holding a sandwich. The person who knocked takes the sandwich, and it’s roughly 27 minutes later before we find out who was knocking, who is distributing sandwiches, and what, if any, significance this image has. Then again, a great many things happen in Outside Satan than have no explanation at all; this is a movie built around nuance and mood, not narrative or expressive characters, and if you’re looking for a fast-paced story, characters you can easily relate to, and an ending that wraps everything up in a neat package, you should avoid Outside Satan at all costs. However, if you want to see a film that takes you someplace unexpected and immerses you in a world where things are rarely what they seem on the surface, then Dumont has delivered a powerful, disturbing piece of work that demands your attention.
The movie is set in a rural community in the South of France, though the often barren and gloomy look of the place gives it a curiously post-apocalyptic feel rather than the sun-dappled beauty one might expect. A nameless man played by David Dewaele wanders the grounds of a farm and the surrounding landscapes, occasionally crossing paths with a dark-haired teenage girl played by Alexandra Lematre. At first, the man appears to be some homeless vagrant and the girl seems like she’s bored and looking for distraction from a colorful stranger, but when he shoots a man near the barn area and we later hear the girl obliquely discussing her stepfather with her mother and how he will never hurt anyone again, we realize their relationship is a bit more complicated. In time, it becomes clear that if anyone does anything to threaten the girl, they soon pay dearly for their actions, but this man is no ordinary protector. (He also has no romantic or sexual interest in the girl, even though she clearly fancies him.) We occasionally see him in prayer, and he seems to have some set of supernatural gifts, but they manifest themselves in curious ways that are never truly explained, and while he’s willing to look after the girl and her family, his benevolence does not extend to strangers.
From that first unexplained knock on the door, an air of mystery and dread hangs over Outside Satan, and writer and director Bruno Dumont does a superlative job of setting a mood that is cool and forbidding, and it never breaks throughout the film’s 110-minute running time. There’s very little dialogue in the picture, and most of what is there hardly seems necessary, but Dumont finds something eloquent in this movie’s long silences (reinforced by the lack of a musical score), as he also does in the overcast images dominated by subdued greens and earth colors (Yves Cape’s cinematography brilliantly maintains the film’s limited color palate). Dumont also shows he can render memorable characters with the simplest ingredients; David Dewaele becomes a fascinating figure who can conjure the forces of nature as the film’s leading man, despite (and to a certain degree because of) the limits imposed on his emotional spectrum. And if Alexandra Lematre is allowed to reveal more of herself as the girl, just like the male lead she’s an enigmatic figure whose mysteries only draw us deeper into her story. Outside Satan stubbornly refuses to reveal or explain itself, and while that may seem frustrating in the first third of the film, Dumont allows the mysteries to carry their own meanings as they play out onscreen, and by the last act it becomes deeply absorbing and quietly terrifying. We may not learn all the answers here, but what Dumont permits us to imagine is more remarkable than what most directors could muster with tens of millions of dollars worth of CGI, and the result is brilliantly unsettling and horribly plausible. leave a comment --Mark Deming