Somewhere on the coast of northern France, a solitary figure sleeps on the beach near a provincial town. This hard-faced man, played by David Dewaele, bears the ferret-like features of Jackie Earle Haley, has fingernails but a millimetre short of being claws, and holds a strange sway over the locals. A troubled young woman (Alexandre Lematre), with boyish features and eyes so squinty she might have spent her teens locked in a basement, idolises the strange man, as both a guiding father figure and an object of lust.
Indoctrinating the girl into his cult of one, the man has her kneel down and pray to the landscape – hills, forests, the horizon. As a token of gratitude, he takes a shotgun and exterminates her supposedly abusive step-father without hesitation.
Who the stranger is becomes a more unanswerable question as Hors Satan continues. This initial act of violence is followed later by a savage beating on a security guard who awkwardly asks the girl out. The stranger continues to rebuff the girl’s sexual advances, but willingly has sex with a passing backpacker. His powers of persuasion are soon revealed to have uses beyond the known sciences; but do the positive results warrant the frightening actions that precede them?
Hors Satan, in English ‘Outside Satan’, can be interpreted in opposite directions, just like its title. It never makes it clear if the man is a prophet or god, on the side of good or chaos. There are arguments either way, and these questions linger even during the film’s landscape-obsessed longeurs.
Director Bruno Dumont’s camera worships the landscape with the same fervour as the film’s protagonist, centring the horizon in several still, pensive shots. A brutalist lighthouse pierces the skyline in one scene, while in another a brush fire creates a cloud of smoke large enough to almost block out the sky. The sun remains in a permanent cloud-coated haze.
Sound is crucial, with mics capturing every movement of the actors, often deafening the soundtrack with the slightest rustling of plants or branches.
Dewaele, an actor almost as mysterious as his role, captures the character’s obscure aura with frustrating fluency. He plays the stranger so vaguely that a definitive interpretation remains utterly elusive. Lematre is convincing, but her performance is dwarfed by Dewaele’s, who seems almost as uncomfortable in her presence as his character is. Supporting roles are few but strong, with Aurore Broutin standing out in her brief appearance as the backpacker, who finds both heaven and hell in her encounter with the stranger. As the girl’s mother, Sonia Barthélémy is remarkable casting solely for how much she favours Lematre.
Playing like an “Antichrist Ordet”, Hors Satan revels too much in its metaphysical mysteries, and casts all too little light over the ever-broadening grey area between good and evil. The sluggish pace and excessive, though beautiful, landscape photography draw it to a near-halt long before its impossible yet predictable ending.