BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: ugly war.

ONE THING Bruno Dumont will never be accused of being is subtle. So one’s predilection for his work will be dependent on one’s tolerance for his heavy-handedness. This means he’s one of contemporary art cinema’s most polarising figures: a film like Flandres can take away the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, while also having a high walk-out rate at Film Festivals. His previous, much-maligned film Twentynine Palms featured a European couple travelling through a Theorem-like wasteland (ahem, the United States), like an Adam and Eve being kicked out of paradise to commute with the rest of the animal kingdom. Flandres, Dumont’s fourth film, continues his exploration of base humanity, our inability to rise above our evolutionary roots, our pretence that life is nothing more than nasty, brutish and short.

An atavistic-looking André Demester tills farms, while denying the girl (Barbe) he’s sleeping with is his girlfriend. Barbe, alienated, runs off to the arms of another. André is called up to war, and he shares company with Barbe’s new beau. The company are fighting in the Middle East somewhere, and are slowly picked off one-by-one, as the company themselves indulge in rape, casual murder and in-fighting. Dumont’s vision is bleak, charred, and offering little in the way of redemption.

The fields that André work on are presumably the titular Flandres, the fields where World War One was so brutally fought over (Dumont does after all pay close attention to the mud in these fields). The new war that the company is fighting is clearly a comment on current “wars on/of terror”, but the look of the action is remarkably similar to Kubrick’s Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket. The juxtaposition between madness and war was perhaps a little too obvious, especially given the homage to Kubrick’s film, but Dumont is stripping existence down to its most basic roots. In effect we are no different to the pig which wanders around André’s farm, poking our snout in for pleasures, running away if threatened.

The film doesn’t strive for realism either (there is no way a company for example would be left to wander the desert the way they do). Dumont films his action with almost a callous eye – explosions, bullets, sex scenes come out of nowhere, and the unpredictability of this cruel world is both an internal and external threat to the characters. He also places his characters in amongst machinery, or alienating landscapes (much like Antonioni), belittling the place of humans in the whole scheme of things. The frankly incredible sound design assists in this: rotten machinery, animal noises, ear-shattering gunfire punctuate the silence. Given that there is no music in the film and there is very little dialogue, the sound design plays even more of a narrative and thematic role. While Dumont’s vision may be too hard for some to stomach, Flandres is a resonant depiction of humanity crawling around in the mud.