Director/Screenplay – Bruno Dumont, Producers – Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Brehat & Muriel Merlin, Photography – Yves Cape, Visual Effects – Duboi, IFC, Mikros Images & Scanlab, Special Effects Supervisor – Gregoire Desage. Production Company – 3B Productions/CRRAV Nord-Pas de Callais/Le Fresnoy/Cinemage 5/Canal+/Cinecinema/Contact Film/Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animee
David Dewaele (The Guy), Alexandra Lematre (Elle), Valerie Mestdagh (The Mother), Juliette Bacquet (The Girl), Sonia Barthelemy (The Mother of the Girl), Aurore Broutin (The Backpacker), Christophe Bon (The Guard), Dominique Caffier (The Man With the Dog)
In a sleepy French farming village, a mysterious stranger appears to the teenage Elle. She is distraught at the abuse she receives from her stepfather and so the stranger takes a shotgun and shoots the stepfather. The stranger lives out in the open. She begins to follow him everywhere. She desires him but he does not want her back. He beats up a guard who is pestering her to go out with him. The stranger also appears to have the ability to heal.
French director Bruno Dumont has gained a very divided reputation. He has a preference for dealing with religious subject matter and in ways that are often controversial. His most famous work is 29 Palms (2003), which has as many detractors as it does people praising its merits. Other of Bruno Dumont’s films include The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanity (1999), Flanders (2006), Hadjewich (2009), Camille Claudel, 1915 (2013), Slack Bay (2016) and Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017).
The reason for Bruno Dumont’s divided reputation is immediately evident in Outside Satan. It is a film that is infuriating in its refusal to give us anything for a large part of its running time. The lead character, who is only ever named Le Gars (The Guy) – the ruggedly handsome and impossibly well coiffed David Dewaele – says almost nothing throughout, answering most questions with impassive silence. We are told nothing about him and everything that we believe might be the case concerning him is ambiguous. Most of the film consists of long scenes of David Dewaele, accompanied by Alexandra Lematre (another of the waifs that French cinema loves and who seems about as near to the legal age limit as it is possible to get), walking through fields or up and down dunes and hillocks.
As we soon gather, Outside Satan is another variant on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which was about the appearance of a miraculous little-speaking Christ-like visitor who turned people’s lives upside down. The same figure turns up in other films such as That Eye, The Sky (1994) and Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (2001). Or perhaps given the film’s title, the more appropriate figure of analogy might be Sting’s visitor in Brimstone and Treacle (1982). All of these films have the common theme of a mystery figure who appears capable of affecting miracles and changing people’s lives, although is very much a morally ambiguous character who seems to do as much bad as good.
Following suit, David Dewaele seems to be capable of miracles, although we can never entirely be sure whether this is the case. He is begged by a mother (Sonia Barthelemy) to heal her daughter (Juliette Bacquet) who is in a withdrawn state. The Guy sits in a chair by her bedside for a few minutes, doing and saying nothing, then gets up and leaves and she appears better. Later, just like the end of Brimstone and Treacle, he forces himself on her and she makes a full recovery afterwards. Elsewhere, he indicates to Alexandra Lematre that he will help with her stepfather if she follows him and stands inside a fire he has made (something we never see her do). At its most overt, he tells her that if she walks across a narrow ledge that bifurcates a miniature lake he will cause a massive fire that appears to be ravaging the countryside to stop – she makes her way across and afterwards the fire has vanished or was never there all along. Equally, The Guy also conducts very morally dubious acts – he shoots and kills the stepfather who abuses Alexandra Lematre; beats up and hospitalises the harmless-seeming guard (Christophe Bon) who asks Alexandra out but she has no interest in; and shoots a gun randomly across the fields and is apologetic but unconcerned when he finds he has accidentally killed a deer. At the film’s most disturbing point, there is a scene where he meets a hitchhiking woman (Aurore Broutin) who offers herself to him, he ravages her, which causes her to convulse and froth at the mouth, although afterwards she crawls into a river and appears to emerge refreshed.
[PLOT SPOILERS] The scene that finally takes Outside Satan over into the fantastic is the final one, which takes a leaf or two from Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). Here Alexandra Lematre is killed. We initially suspect The Guy of this but later this is revealed not to be the case. The Guy then sneaks into the family home where the body is laid out and steals it wrapped in a sheet. He takes it out into the middle of nowhere and kneels beside it for a time. After he leaves, she comes back to life with a gasp.