on 22 March 2012
Few films which have been so critically lauded as 'Flanders' has (its accolades including winning Cannes' Grand Prix), have met with such criticism as this film has. Viewed by some as a dark, unflinching masterpiece, and by others as a pretentious exercise in shock tactics, opinion on 'Flanders' varies wildly. I personally found Flanders to be an excellent, if flawed work, but in reviewing this; am adding the caveat that this certainly doesn't seem to be a film which will appeal to everyone.
'Flanders' tells the story of Demester, a rural farmer who goes off to fight in a brutal, unnamed conflict, alongside others from his rural district; including Blondin, the cocky charmer who has stolen Demester's love, the selfish and fragile Barbe, from his arms. 'Flanders' is an highly uncomfortable film to watch, but also an extremely powerful one. Dumont focuses on the troubled depth of the individual, the tendencies towards madness and barbarism, and the unspoken. The film is full of unsaid words, such as when Dumont is forced to sit next to Barbe, whilst she passionately kisses Blondin. The film's violence is startling, but, I would argue, is far from being just the stuff of 'shock value'. Through the depictions of rape, child murder and, most graphically, a genital mutilation; Dumont intimates the easiness with which one can become desensitised and brutalised. The conflict, additionally, is set in an unnamed land. Far from this being locational laziness from Dumont, it highlights the absurdity of war, and also promotes the notion that this could be any two groups of people killing each other sadistically. Dumont's vision of the individual is a commendably complex one; as we also see love and affection filtered in, although they are often tinged with cruelty; like Barbe's unabashed attitude towards her love of Blondin, when she talks to Demester.
There are admittedly flaws in 'Flanders'. Sections of the film, especially those shot in Demester's rural Nord-pas-du-Calais, drag on for too long. Admittedly, Dumont is attempting to highlight the mundanity of life, but the viewer gets this point quickly - long before most of these sections are over. The sexuality of the film is also a little unrealistic, with characters literally rolling in the haystacks (this is rural country, after all!) with anyone else who happens to be on screen, to a point where it becomes a little unrealistic. Finally, Barbe is too dislikeable a character for us to sympathise with in the way Dumont seems to want us to; her actions overwhelming some of the potential sympathy we may have for her. Still, despite these admitted flaws, 'Flanders' is a startling, thought-provoking and grimly engaging piece of cinema, which, whilst not to everyone's tastes, has the power to remain in the mind long after the credits roll.