Another “WTF?” film from Gallic writer-director Bruno Dumont (“L’Humanite”), “Outside Satan” will leave plenty of viewers scratching their heads, with some of them thinking the pic’s titular evil is the auteur himself. Maddening, pretentious, hypnotic and transcendent in roughly equal measure, Dumont’s minimalist study of an oddball poacher and the farm girl who keeps him company contains only a dozen “dramatic” events, but they all register indelibly, such is the director’s talent for making the minor appear momentous — and maybe religious. Word-of-mouth about the pic’s grisly violence and unsolvable mysteries should make “Satan” a must-see among artfilm aficionados.
Set in and around a scruffy hamlet near Boulogne sur Mer, the film opens with a guy — actually, the Guy, as he’s known in the credits — receiving a sandwich from an unseen person behind a door, then kneeling to pray as the sun rises over the marshland. The Guy (David Dewaele) then meets up with the Girl (Alexandra Lematre), and the two walk silently down a long road. At roughly the 10-minute mark, the film’s first words — “I can’t take anymore,” says the Girl — will fairly describe the sentiments of any viewer who stumbled in unaware of Dumont’s austere provocations.
After awhile the director does reveal what the Girl can’t take — a problem solved by the Guy in what he’d reckoned was the “only way.” Dumont loves to introduce patterns, narrative and formal, and then modify them in subtle and sometimes inscrutable ways. The Guy, who might bear a vague resemblance to Jesus were it not for his perpetually glum expression, goes back to the door for another sandwich, which this time we see is given by the Girl. The Guy prays again, too, but accompanied by the Girl, who dresses all in black and sports spiky hair.
Then, disturbing the bucolic landscape, with its mountains, sand and sea, there’s a string of violent deaths, most of which Dumont reveals incrementally so that at first (or even later) they appear merely as very nasty injuries. There are also a few events so supernatural that they can only be described as miracles — religious ones, if you will, but such an interpretation isn’t required. Halfway through the pic, the Guy knocks on a door yet again in trade for food — but this time it’s a different door! Among the film’s more stubbornly withheld revelations: What’s behind door No. 2?
Like Dumont’s “Twentynine Palms” and “Life of Jesus” (give or take the Cannes Grand Prix-winning “L’Humanite”), “Outside Satan” flirts with all-out absurdity, as if managing to keep it at bay will be the director’s own miracle, highly subject to interpretation. Less debatable are the film’s technical merits, with d.p. Yves Cape delivering naturalistic beauty on a wide canvas, and the on-location sound work capturing every minute nuance of bird-chirps, cock-crows, and blasts of both wind and, uh, shotgun.