“I can’t take anymore” is the first thing anyone says in Outside Satan, about 10 mum and mystifying minutes in. Viewers who feel no generosity toward the French writer-director Bruno Dumont might find themselves momentarily less confused than usual: At last, something they can relate to.
Twice a Cannes Jury Prize winner but never a crowd-pleaser, the divisive Dumont is one of those peculiar art house auteurs whose films people can’t wait to walk out on. So fans and detractors alike will find much to savor in his sixth feature, this airy tale of an unnamed vagrant (David Dewaele) wandering the coastal dunes of northwestern France and doling out dubious miracles, with help from a pallid proto-goth tomboy (Alexandra Lemaître) who with those first pleading words becomes his acolyte.
Subsequently, it becomes clear that an abusive stepfather is what she couldn’t take anymore, and that the Guy—as credits later call Dewaele’s drifter—keeps a shotgun handy for just such occasions. Otherwise the vagabond lacks any apparent agenda but does have a special way of staying involved with his community. Between long walks with the tomboy through the brush, he finds himself bludgeoning a deer or a passive-aggressive park ranger, curing a young girl’s catatonia with a method society will frown upon, and taking up a random backpacker’s blankly amatory advances by making her howl and foam at the mouth. (Viewers who got through earlier Dumont films will recall his zeal for unpleasant sex.) Now and then, he’ll also be seen dropping to his knees and fixing solemn gazes on the middle distance. Of course, it’s hard to know how to read this proneness to genuflection. Is it a humbled collapse into spontaneous Creation reverence, or is our Guy just some haywire robot defaulting into rest mode?
Viewed skeptically, Outside Satan merely reheats fixations dating back to Dumont’s 1997 debut, The Life of Jesus, suggesting that an artist formerly undecided on whether to depict demons or messiahs had finally decided not to decide. Even so, his skills abide. In Dewaele, he has found the right man for whatever job this is, a mesmerizingly impassive performer with the face of so many sinewy, sinister Renaissance Christs, here ever boldly situated in cinematographer Yves Cape’s organic wide-screen vistas.
Outside Satan premiered at Cannes last year along with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a different film but arguably like-minded in its sincerely personal inspection of provincial religiosity. Where Malick strove for soaring lyricism, though, Dumont, avowedly an atheist, insists on a much lower register, a sort of droning chant. Set to a live soundtrack of only wind, occasional birdsong, and the performers’ breath, his vision of sublimity is arrestingly naturalistic.
Ultimately less an arty provocation than a secular invocation, Outside Satan seems almost helplessly exploratory, an honest account of groping for grace. Whether we walk out or not, Guy remains a mystery to Dumont, too.