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The human side of love and war

In Bruno Dumont's `Flanders,' when men are called to serve their country, conflict goes beyond the battlefield.

June 08, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Bruno Dumont fills his movies with foreboding, ennui and frank sexuality, seen through a lens that finds profundity in ordinary surroundings. The unseen menace that haunts his stories nearly always materializes in the form of shocking violence that introduces evil into seemingly banal circumstances, forcing us to consider whether it was there all along.

After the irredeemably disturbing "Twentynine Palms," Dumont returns to the north of France for "Flanders," a harrowing drama that appears to look at the effects of war on a group of young people but ultimately reaches for something more internal. As with his other films, which include "Life of Jesus" and "L'Humanite," the writer-director combines the patience of a landscape painter with the descriptive abilities of a prose writer in creating his images.

"Flanders" tracks like a novel in which the writer spends paragraphs articulating the way a plow churns through the earth. It doesn't sound very interesting but it can have an almost hypnotic effect on the viewer. Dumont has stated that his landscapes are externalizations of what is happening within his characters, and cinematographer Yves Cape's camera lingers across the farmland setting, slowly soaking up every visible detail as it slowly reveals the vague contours of a story.

Andre (Samuel Boidin) is a young, blank-faced farmer with dark, expressionless eyes. Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) is his coquettish young neighbor. Together, they slog off through the mud to a remote field where they engage in uninspired sex on the cold, wintry ground. Though Barbe obviously has feelings for Andre, he remains emotionally remote.

This may have something to do with his imminent report for military service, though Andre's friend Mordac (Patrice Venant) has no problem expressing his passion for his girlfriend, France (Inge Decaesteker). A third young man, Blondel (Henri Cretel) arrives at the local pub and flirts with Barbe, who leaves with him to punish Andre for his lack of reciprocity.

The setting is bleak, the skies are gray, but what lies ahead is even more threatening. All three young men have letters calling them to duty and they are soon off fighting a war in an unspecified desert. Unlike previous Dumont films in which the violence often arrives swiftly and bluntly, the atrocities in "Flanders" accumulate.

Dumont cuts from the war, where Andre, Mordac and Blondel serve in a small regiment that gets smaller with each sequence, back to Flanders, where the seasons change and the expressionistic landscape grows more welcoming, but the fragile Barbe is not handling the departure of the men well.

Nonprofessional actors Boidin and Leroux deliver intense performances which shoulder the emotional weight of the film. Leroux, in particular, expresses yearning and hurt, along with an awkward sensuality, with great subtlety and even brings a certain amount of restraint to the larger gestures required in the film's second half.

"Flanders" is a discomfiting film which is oddly poignant for its human scale. Dumont's brutal, non-heroic view of war reduces the subject to a construct that simply manifests the turmoil within the characters.

The savage acts that occur in and around battle reveal an amorality that infects everyday life.

It is finally less a movie about war than something that anesthetizes us long enough to stop and feel. We are programmed to see war as the main event, but here it recedes to the background becoming a bridge to life's broader struggles. This deeply felt vision of the human condition has more resonance than yet another movie concluding that war is hell.

"Flanders." In French with English subtitles. MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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