A "Flanders" Reader

Michael Guillen May 6, 2007

As Bruno Dumont’s “Flanders“ navigates festival waters, it’s been leaving behind a noticeable wake. There’s no reason to think audiences will not divide in the same fascinated way at SFIFF50 as they have all over the world since it secured the 2006 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize (Palme D’Or went to “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”). What follows is a starter kit on the discussion as it begins its run at the Festival today.

Although Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter presciently — perhaps petulantly — asserted, “Whatever this Cannes jury thinks of ‘Flanders,’ the film will make only brief art house appearances” (It’s scheduled for release this summer), Variety‘s Deborah Young found much to admire in “Flanders.” Though noting its “abrasive strangeness,” Young described “Flanders” as “a somber, beautifully acted reflection on the barbarity of war and the bestiality of man, which only enormous compassion can redeem.” She granted high marks to Yves Cape’s “sensitive cinematography,” which “[p]unctuated with intense close-ups . . . has an elegant spareness even in dreariest barnyard coupling, then swings wide in dazzling desert panoramas and sweeping Flanders landscapes.” Even Honeycutt — none too fond of the film as a whole — agreed: “Yves Cape’s camera captures the dueling landscapes of green farms and desolate desert with crisp efficiency.” The program capsule for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s showing during its annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series likewise emphasized: “The move from plowed fields to battlefields and then back again gives the film an almost seasonal feeling, as if what he is depicting, in all its horror, is part of a very natural cycle of life.” Daniel Kasman explored Dumont’s effective contrast of landscapes to analyze its effect on human psychology.

Anthony Kaufmann at indieWIRE found Flanders “strangely riveting” and the “tortured madness” of Adélaïde Leroux’s performance “fascinating.” He concluded that “Flanders” derived its power less from its story than the culmination of the film’s final images. Deborah Young highlighted that Dumont “continues to divide critics and the public with his unorthodox stringing of provocative, highly charged scenes together until they climax in a critical mass.”

Andrew O’Hehir claimed Flanders was one of the most powerful films he’d seen at Cannes, and “found its minimal dialogue and intentional anachronisms . . . fascinating rather than annoying.”

Geoff Andrews for Time Out London found the film a “damp squib” with its main virtue being its 90-minute brevity. Honeycutt offered it was “pretentious to the core and lacking any context or credible characterizations.” James Rocchi at Cinematical described it as “slow, turgid, bleak and brutal.”

Manohla Dargis‘s New York Times critique examined Dumont’s Bressonian aspirations, complaining that — unlike Robert Bresson — Dumont “seems uninterested in spiritual journeys or in representing how the ineffable equally touches the human face, a donkey’s ear, a crown of flowers. The only mystery here is how Mr. Dumont has gone so quickly from promising young director to such an unsteady, unhappy talent.” She suggested he is faltering from “the burden of the auteur [that] hangs over European directors as heavily as it does any digital savant hungry for Sundance.” She concluded that Dumont “may have something to say off camera, but on camera all he can offer now are fine technical skills and recycled gestures.”

David D’Arcy offered a compelling dispatch on the film to the GreenCine Daily. He took on the film’s detractors at NYT, which, he added, may have worried distributors from opening it here, and waxed eloquent on the presiding presence of the Flanders landscape along the Franco-Belgian border, the site of the bloodiest trench warfare of World War I. D’Arcy wrote, “Flanders was another battlefield, the region in which lines and the trenches marking those lines shifted during World War I, where the graves are even closer to the surface than those of the Hundred Years War, and millions more died. Those lingering shots in Flanders of a tractor driven by the young farmer Demester (Samuel Boidin) churning up wet soil aren’t just pounding the impression into the audience that the peasant life is an existence of stultifying boredom. It’s a reminder that these characters are literally walking on top of millions of corpses.”

In a similarly astute historical appreciation, Acquarello at Strictly Film School noted: “Inevitably, it is perhaps within this interpenetrating cycle of war and growth, violence and intimacy, death and renewal that Dumont also invokes the impassioned, elegiac sentiment of John McCrae’s famous Great War poem, In Flanders Fields in its contours of memory and eternally transforming landscape that define the inalterable shape of the human heart.” Acquarello perceived Dumont’s Flanders as “an austere, tonal, and visceral exposition into the integral nature of violence, sexuality, desire, and instinctual survival.”

If you prefer to hear Dumont’s own words on his latest enterprise, check out his interviews with Daniel Trilling for The New Statesman; Charles Masters for The Hollywood Reporter; and/or Camillo de Marco for Cineuropa.