Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 02, 2006 9:01 am 
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Powerful return to form for Dumont

My sense of the pointlessness of Alfonso Cuarón's badly written but flashily shot new sci-fi thriller, Children of Men, was heightened by seeing a good film later in the same late October day in Paris: Bruno Dumont's 2006 Cannes Grand Prix winner, Flandres. Flandres is about men pushed to their limits in situations we know are happening every day and have happened for millennia: young men leaving girlfriends, families, going to war, and coming back guilty and damaged. But as things tend to go, no one in the US is getting to see Flandres, while the man in the street is already proclaiming Children of Men the movie of the year.

In Children of Men it's 2027 and everything on the planet has gone wrong. Everything has gone wrong with the scenario, too. Nothing is explained, and nothing quite computes. Every country's been trashed, we're told (we see one news still per continent in a hasty rundown), except England. We've heard that one before. It's always down to the country where the film was shot, or is supposed to happen. Why England is considered not trashed, since every scene shows bombs going off, clashes in the street, general messes, and hordes of "aliens" being confined to cages and carted off to concentration camps, is a bit hard to figure. Cuarón's England of 21 years from now is a world of violence and repression worthy of Orwell's 1984; but like that story, this one has already passed its expiry date. It'll take a bit more then 21 years to reach this stage of decline.

Somehow there are groups with names like "the Fish" that have banded together to try to protect themselves in a world void of safety or trust. Though nobody knows why, all women are infertile now -- worldwide. (Other countries still exist; they just aren't worth shooting film footage in.) The youngest person on the planet has just died in Latin America--that is, the youngest guy; he was eighteen and something. A girl is now the youngest. So what?

Enter Clive Owen, our man in a pinch. He's rounded up by Julienne Moore, who's the head of the Fish and once was married to him. she wants his help getting somebody passage out of the area. He refuses, but is taken off to the country later anyway to meet Michael Caine, done up with long wavy white hair as an aging hippy with a deluxe hippy pad out in the woods, where he deals dope to prison guards, apparently. Warning: people die like flies in this movie, and though everything is elaborately worked out, nothing makes any particular sense.

It next emerges that a young English black woman is pregnant, and the project is to get her to safety. I didn't quite get why this led to her being taken into a prison camp teeming with weeping and wailing foreign nut cases, or why she was then led on to a full-scale rebellion in town and a large building that's gradually being blown to pieces. Eventually she makes it to a buoy and a boat named Tomorrow comes to pick her up. Symbolic, I guess.

This movie is a chaotic actioner robbed of real content. How did the world go so wrong? Why all the violence and disorder? Haven't scientist's got any idea about this global infertility? And by the way, how is one child going to help? If only one woman is fertile, will siblings have to mate? Won't that be unhealthy? And won't that take a good long while? What about the general disorder? What has the xenophobia got to do with the infertility?

What we have here is just an excuse for a lot of ersatz violence, which one can't care about since one doesn't know its cause -- except the government's rounding up of all aliens in cages and concentration camps. And why on earth do Clive and the pregnant girl wind up in that camp and the crumbling building during the insurrection? And in a pitched battle with bombs going off, why do they rush to the top of a building? It seems as though the general urgency is just supposed to be a given we must accept. I don't. Children of Men is disturbing, unpleasant, and confusing. A number of quite good actors are wasted in it. What possessed Cuarón to take on this project?

In a way, Bruno Dumont's Flandres is no more realistic than Cuarón's Children of Men. It doesn't exactly seek to depict real people or a real war. Dumont's people are laconic, but the powerful filmmaking tells a clear and moving story. Using sinple, economical means and focusing on a few individuals, presenting scenes that follow a logical, universal progression, Flandres is able to tell a profound story about war's ravages at home and on the front. Dumont's storytelling is simple and sure. So is the cinematography of Yves Cape and the editing of Guy Lacorne. And so is the acting, especially of Samuel Boidin as Démester and of Adélaïde Leroux as his girlfriend Barbe -- but also of Henri Cretel as Démester's friend Blondel, and of Jean-Marie Bruveart (Briche), David Poulain (Leclercq), Patirce Venant (Mordac), David Legay ( (Lieutenant) and Inge Decaesteker (France).

The film focuses on a young farmer and his girlfriend. He and some other locals are going off to war. Last sex, last drinks with friends, last campfire gatherings, last work in the field with a tractor.

Then, the departure: roll call, near a truck, a few people waving goodbye. Next Démester is in the desert. In an attempt to take a building (a scene we know well through documentary news footage from Iraq) one of their officers is blown up. A helicopter takes away the body. They enter the building and kill a couple of youthful partisans -- fighters, clearly, but also mere pitiful boys.

Each of the scenes is iconic and vivid. This is low-budget war, but it feels real enough. How big is the budget of a few men fighting out in the bush? There are tanks and explosions aplenty. Most of all there is sweat and dust and blood. Two other things happen. The squad captures a woman fighter, and some of the men rape her. Later, on a hillside, they trap a farmer on a donkey loaded with firewood, and they shoot him. They are subsequently captured by members of the enemy (who are North African--but their dialogue isn't translated; and they could be Iraqis) who know what they have done, and they are severely punished.

Meanwhile André's (Démester's) girlfriend Barbe at home grows more and more unstable and after a violent psychotic break, she is hospitalized, but later released.

André escapes with his friend Blondel, but when Blondel's shot, he runs off to save himself.

Dumont uses the inarticulate country talk of the people to underline the universality of the events. How did Blondel die, his girlfriend wants to know later? "Balle dans la tête," Démester says; a bullet in the head. That's all he wants to say, and all we need to know. Démester is a brute, in a way. But he's also got a sweet smile. He's childlike. He is the child sent off to kill that all war builds upon.

Next we see Démester back home. The final sequences convey how damaged he and his girlfriend and his friend's girlfriend are now. André suffers from survivor guilt. Their state is pitiful, but the last shot is positive. André is lying on the dirt with Barbe and telling her over and over "Je t' t'aime." I love you.

This is classic Dumont style, if on a bolder and grander scale than before. His people are none the less noble, pathetic, and human for being reduced to simplicity, even crudity. Dumont has told a story as energetic and forward-driven as the Dardennes brothers' L'Enfant, but more universal, and even more concise (91 rather than 100 minutes). As in Dumont's L'Humanité and La Vie de Jésus, there's a grandeur that emerges from the stripped-down, minimal scenes and people. Everything works. It's surprising that Variety's usually canny reviewer made it sound dull and off-putting. There is still resistence to Dumont's style.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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