Bruno Dumont returns to the desolate pastoral and emotional landscapes of his earlier features L’Humanité and Life of Jesus in Flanders, an austere, tonal, and visceral exposition into the integral nature of violence, sexuality, desire, and instinctual survival. A rugged young farmer, Demester (Samuel Boidin) impassively harvests his dessicated, autumnal fields before finding his neighbor – and unrequited object of affection – Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) waiting for him in the clearing to take a casual walk in the woods and a diversionary afternoon rendezvous. In a subsequent encounter with mutual acquaintances at a local bar, Barbe seemingly trivializes her relationship with the introverted Demester by casually referring to him as a close, childhood friend before impulsively (and all too easily) submitting to the advances of a bar patron, another conscript named Blondel (Henri Cretel). The stark juxtaposition of Barbe’s fickle dismissiveness of her familiar intimacy with her obliging neighbor, and her brief, but intense affair with Blondel exposes the profound gulf that continues to separate Demeter from his beloved who, in his opaque gaze and uncomfortable silence, cannot articulate the depth of his despair over her cavalier treatment of their relationship – supplanting the greyness of their cold, unemotive, and mechanical post-coital embrace with the (alluded) image of unbridled carnality intrinsic in Barbe and Blondel’s desperate, needy, and frenzied coupling. Sent far away from their bucolic hometown to wage war in the trenches of a distant land with his unwitting romantic rival, Demester sublimates his wounded heart and sense of betrayal in their mutual struggle for survival against a brutal and faceless enemy. But as the inhumanity and carnage of a seemingly senseless and interminable military campaign continues to take its toll on the psyches of the young soldiers, Demester finds himself struggling to maintain his sanity by holding on to the fragile memories of his distant, unreciprocated, and increasingly impossible love. In capturing the progression of seasons against an unchanging landscape, Flanders may also be seen as something of a corollary to Twentynine Palms (a connection that is also suggested by Dumont’s comment on his penchant for the interchangeable placement of the final cut that would dramatically alter the tone of the ending, not unlike the polarizing editing strategy of Twentynine Palms), where the alien and often treacherous contours of the human heart are revealed in the abstraction of gestures and the silence of unarticulated despair.
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