Notes from the LFF: Hors Satan/Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont, France, 2011)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, French Cinema, Uncategorized

Are we living in the end times?

Personally, I don’t think so.

But, then again, while I will be sad to die (this is a lie – I won’t be anything except dead), and while I’ll be sad (and pretty excited) to see some other planet crash into Earth, or whatever fate awaits humanity and the rock we float on, this will not be the end of things.

I view it pretty simply: molecules, matter, light, and all of that ‘primary’ stuff that goes to make up the universe will still be around. They will never not be around. Perhaps they cannot not to be around. So an absolute end to all things? No, I don’t think so.

Hors Satan is one of a small bunch of recent art house movies that features a miracle (more than one in this film, in fact).

Miracles are relatively common place in the mainstream – impossible things happen the whole time, whether or not these are given a religious context and whether or not they are recognised as being miraculous.

Given that the mainstream peddles in impossible/miraculous illusion on a day-to-day basis, miracles there are not as interesting as when they appear in art house cinema.

Why? Because art house cinema is ‘for’ and ‘by’ ‘intellectuals’ – which stereotypically might have overlap with what I shall call agnosticism. Here, I don’t quite mean agnosticism in the sense of ‘I am not sure what or whether I believe in God or not,’ although it’s linked – hence my choice to use this word.

What I mean by agnosticism is a certain suspicion with regard to miracles: people do not get up from the dead and walk in everyday life (not without the help of defibrillators, anyway). Or if they do, there might well be a ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ explanation, to which we do not necessarily have access.

Now, just to be clear, I think that you can believe in God and still be agnostic if we accept this definition. And note that this agnosticism is not meant to rule out miracles – it’s just to want thoroughly to question the evidence for them.

This in and of itself might place too great an emphasis on ‘science’ – but my point is not that such a ‘scientific’ view is without potential flaws. It is simply that, according to this view, miracles would push the bounds of credibility.

A second – linked – reason why miracles in art house cinema are more remarkable (and push the bounds of credibility) is that art house cinema – a very problematic generalisation, I confess – often (but not exclusively) is made in what we have come to accept as a ‘realistic’ style. That is, few elements are obtrusive, be that the acting, the mise-en-scène, the cinematography, the editing, or the soundtrack.

Instead, everything plays in seemingly real – and not stylised – locations, with the camera retaining some distance from events, not moving in an ostentatious fashion, and with edits taking place when they perhaps ‘need’ to, rather than ‘for the sake of it’. Since these films try to look like everyday life, and since miracles do not take place in everyday life, it is intriguing – and all the more surprising – that art house films would choose to portray miracles in this style.

Art house films might be weird as far as their status as a film is concerned. To give an example, Hors Satan itself has long takes, in which little happens and in which there is little dialogue as the unnamed lead character, played by David Dewaele, walks around the countryside of the north of France, seemingly praying to the countryside, and taking away and giving life as he sees fit.

But, even though we seem increasingly to find our real lives intolerable if they are filled with silence and little movement, such silence and stillness in a film might yet be thought of as realistic – because reality is not the crash bang wallop of the mainstream movies.

That is, as far as films go, Hors Satan is ‘weird’ because it does not conform to the norms of mainstream filmmaking – which bring with them an implicit contract whereby the audience ‘expects’ miracles to happen. But this ‘weirdness’ for a film might still be termed realistic, because life itself is slow and often quiet. And so when a miracle happens in a ‘weird’ and slow and supposedly ‘realistic’ film, it seems as though something even more weird must be going on.

Along with Stellet licht/Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2007) and Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, Austria/France/Germany, 2009), then, Hors Satan is one of a handful of high profile and recent art house ‘miracle movies.’

Why is the story of a miracle, as happens in Hors Satan, linked to the ‘end times’ I evoked at the outset of this blog?

My proposed – and admittedly general – answer would be that we live in times when it is hard to find something to believe in. Almost any religious belief is – especially beliefs held so strongly that one would want to share that belief with others and perhaps even try to persuade them of the truth of those beliefs – quickly derided as ‘fundamentalism,’ as is the seemingly irrational and rabid refusal to believe in capitalism.

In other words, ‘realists’ are supposedly atheists, as the religion bashers such as Richard Dawkins aim to make clear. Being realists, there would be little space for miracles in films made for ‘intelligent’ and ‘realistic’ people, and also made by ‘intelligent’ filmmakers who shoot using the technical and formal conventions of ‘realism’ (realism as a style of filmmaking).

In the postmodern era, in which the so-called ‘grand narratives’ that previously could explain the world and our position therewith have been overthrown but not replaced, it would appear that there is nothing to believe in anymore.

And yet with mankind’s fragility ever more thrust in our own faces, it is perhaps natural that humans would turn back to religion – or at least the belief in some power/force/energy/design/divinity – in order to have some rationale behind the human project, and perhaps also to convince us that we do not need to be out there in the streets murdering and stealing simply because we know that no punishment – either Earthly or divine – awaits us.

(I am intrigued by the fact that the day on which the human population on Earth reached seven billion in number, the news seems to mourn our demise – not enough food, not enough warmth, not enough oxygen to keep us going. That is, the human race is numerically at its strongest, and yet the discourse seems overwhelmingly to emphasise that we are at our weakest.)

Now, I personally think that none of Silent Light, Lourdes or Hors Satan actually believes in the miracles that they depict – and also believe that none of them is a ‘Christian’ film attempting to woo its viewers back to the church because if we don’t pray now, then, Pascal-like, we might lose our bet with God.

The reference to Pascal is perhaps apt. For Pascal himself argues – in the same section (233) of his Pensées in which the wager appears – that we cannot have access to the infinite, or to God, because we are finite – and the infinite is not just a ‘big number’; rather, the infinite is without number.

That is to say, Pascal is talking about a faith without proof – precisely, a faith. Ostensibly, then, a miracle – as ‘proof’ of God – eliminates the wager; once you’ve seen a miracle, you just believe because you have seen God and don’t need to, nay cannot, doubt anymore.

Here is where what I perceive to be the failure of these three films to believe in their own miracles perhaps becomes interesting. For the miracles in each film function for me not as proof of God, but as evidence of our need for beliefs as a whole.

There is nothing stopping anyone from reading these films – perhaps Lourdes especially – as being literal accounts of miracles. However, for me these films are about the need to fill a void that has been created by the drive to render the world scientifically comprehensible (even though science itself remains full of mysteries, with the Higgs-Boson itself sometimes even referred to – even if jokingly – as the ‘God particle’).

In other words, Gödel notwithstanding, our comprehension of the universe is incomplete – and this is in part perhaps because of the lack of anything to believe in. Belief, then, might yet (even if not forever) remain a vital need for humans, a meme of such power that we cannot ignore it.

Although I have not discussed Hors Satan or any of the films mentioned in much depth, I just wanted to get across these brief thoughts.

And as a brief add-on, I found it interesting that We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011) dared to look precisely at our belief-less, postmodern society from the perspective of a mother whose love for her son is only ambivalent (and vice versa) at absolute best.

Not only does this for me confirm Ramsay’s status as one of the leading lights of British cinema (my top quartet typically would be Winterbottom, Meadows, Arnold and Ramsay), but it also stands in stark contrast to the ‘king’ of postmodern pop, Quentin Tarantino.

In a very informative book about film and ethics, Lisa Downing writes that Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (USA, 2003-2004) ultimately offer up the myth of motherhood as, for Tarantino, a final ideological barrier that for him is absolute – and not a social/cultural convention that is contingent (i.e. need not necessarily be true or real under different circumstances).

Kevin is prepared to take a step in that direction and to question even this myth.

Dumont’s film has a set of concerns entirely separate from Ramsay’s – and perhaps from all of the films mentioned here.

But if nothing else it is an interesting – and beautiful – meditation on what the times are such that they might be ending.

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