TIFF 2011: ‘Outside Satan’ presents a disturbing spiritual vision

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Outside Satan

Written by Bruno Dumont

Directed by Bruno Dumont

France, 2011

The work of Bruno Dumont is not for the faint of heart. A filmmaker who consistently pushes the boundaries of “morality,” he challenges the audience’s expectations of acceptable screen content. Even his style is alienating as he subverts modes of identification. His newest film, Outside Satan, is borne from the beautiful but grey coastal area of the Cote d’Opale, an area famous for it’s cliffs. The landscape served as the main inspiration for Dumont, who presents a disturbed spiritual journey centered on a nameless outsider who lives on the outskirts of a village-town and his friendship with a young woman who lives there.

Dumont’s realist aesthetic makes the actions of this outsider all the more frightening. His remorseless violence is framed by a desire to help a young woman who is apparently victimized by the town. He murders those who have preyed and abused her but with a cold and steady hand that suggests no empathy for human life. The ambiguity in his intentions makes the film’s morality all the more challenging, suggesting this outsider might be a force more powerful than the realist aesthetic would normally allow.

In this sense, Dumont evokes the work of Robert Bresson whose own work evokes spirituality through a minimalist aesthetic and careful editing work. Both focusing especially on point of view as a means of creating meaning and pace, two concepts that work hand in hand in this film. Meaning arises from forcing the perspective of an un-romanticized social outcast onto the viewer. Little context is given to the strange rituals and happenings that surround our nameless outsider, but we are nonetheless wary of his role within the film. This film relies on the implication of it’s title and how it affects our perception of the strange goings-on in this small village. We are consistently forced to identify with this outsider, even though we are not allowed to understand his motivation or role within the society. We become equally complacent with his acts of murder as we do his acts of grace.

This powerful outsider is given the name of Satan, not the devil. He is a specific “creature,” a force who is human and divine – tragic and pitiful, but not to be trusted. When townspeople turn to him for comfort or help, we fear his power. He is not only capable of taking away life, but restoring it. We do not trust his divinity perhaps because it is so double-edged. Through his work, Bresson consistently questioned our relationship with an invisible God. A God who allowed suffering and tragedy to befall the most innocent and benevolent humans. In Outside Satan, Satan helps those who God has forgotten.

The film presents an extremely tricky morality which challenges both traditional concepts of monotheistic religion as well as atheism. This is a film of miracles, but miracles that do not inspire a sense of wonder. The sublime manifests itself as much through death as it does through life, it exists in contradiction between the greatest beauty and the most frightful ugliness. Murder and birth exist in the same breath and we are propelled into a unique fiction founded on moral uncertainty. This film challenges every notion and belief the audience might hold about the world and refuses to satiate our desire for comfort and peace. Dumont wishes to ignite the mind and the heart and he succeeds.

Justine Smith

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.






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