(18/07/07)Flandres is the fourth film from writer-director Bruno Dumont and the fourth which contains scene after scene of characters who, despite being unable to articulate what’s on their minds, possess passionate inner selves; they are aware of the fact that there is no such thing as an easy escape. They live life as if they will never fathom how it works but know that they are expected to carry on with it all the same.

Dumont’s minimalist camerawork reveals all we need to know. What is perhaps most intriguing about this style is that the more pared-down it gets, the more it seems invested with powers to create extreme suspense. Consider an earlier Dumont film, L’Humanit: it proceeds from the discovery of the corpse of a young girl to portray the leisurely lives of the people in a small town in northern France. Although the characters move slowly, the film is not ‘relaxed’. Every shot, every discordant piece of framing or obscure behaviour adds to the mix and the result is an astonishingly intriguing whodunnit.

Flandres operates on the same principle. The ‘Scope frame gazes unerringly on the humdrum rural lives of its characters. It is the present day, and yet the men have been drafted off to a war which they don’t understand and which is never identified.

When we get to the war itself, it looks like it could be Iraq, Afghanistan, or some generic middle Eastern country. This is not really a political comment on the part of the film. We accept the impressionistic war sequences as versions of the kind of war that we know, or fear, is being fought somewhere, today.

What unsettles us more is that our guide through this war is not the cheerful and good-looking Blondel (Henri Cretel) but the rather ugly Demester (Samuel Boidin), presumably in love with his friend Barbe (Adlade Leroux) back home but also not averse to joining in the gang-rape of a female guerrilla that the men capture in an abandoned outpost. When she captures them later, in return, the punishment she dishes out is terrible to behold, and counts as one of the most harrowing movie scenes in recent years. But it is part of the hell that Demester must go through, in Dumont’s terms, in order to understand what it is about his life which is worth living, and fighting, for.

Not long before the male characters head off to war, they sit with their womenfolk round a bonfire which they have made in a small field not far from the farm. Barbe sits with her two men, Demester and Blondel, one on each side of her, Blondel clearly with the light shone on him, for he is her new lover, and Demester burdened with the weight of their shared history and the constant stalling of their hesitant attempts at a relationship.

Ahead of them, beyond the flickering flames and the distortion of the heat in the air, lies a distant town, a few miles away, a spire seeming to offer a forlorn example of moral or spiritual guidance. As the characters chat, ponder, and simply ‘are’ together, they look towards it, just as in L’Humanit, the gaze of De Winter, the cop (Emmanuel Schott), is transfixed by the Eurostar which would scoot across the horizon during some of his most introspective lulls.

The contemplation of distance in Flandres‘ bonfire scene becomes the dread of distance to be traversed in the war sequences. Smoke across a landscape speaks of some distant, but no doubt soon-to-be-encountered horrific attack. The soldiers move from A to B to C with only a shielded sense of purpose or understanding, and then encounter incidents of direct confrontation – the attack in the town, their apprehension by the guerrillas – which lead to ever more unpleasant goings-on. Thus, once again, Dumont is portraying the lives of characters who know that, while you can let your eyes drift to the horizon, the future, or the contemplation of paradise, they are always faced with what is going on in the here and now.

Flandres, which won last year’s Grand Prix at Cannes (the second Dumont film to receive this prize, after L’Humanit), is a bracing, brief and unforgettable tale of war, of the men who fight and the people who remain back home; and Dumont has, yet again, delivered a very individual film, full of scenes and shots so powerful, they prompt a kind of inspiration in the viewer. If it doesn’t quite have the epic sway of L’Humanit, it is a darn sight more gripping, for its duration, than La Vie de Jesus or Twentynine Palms. Without wanting to give anything away, it must be said that the ending falls a little flat – it lacks the truly transcendental flourish that one would imagine Dumont was aiming for. But you still exit the cinema feeling luckier to be alive.

Flandres is playing in the UK now.