Watching Hors Satan (“Outside Satan”) was a mystical experience for me. As such, unfortunately, I’ve found it maddeningly difficult to try to communicate its power through language. My chief frustration isn’t that I won’t be able to move you toward an understanding of some concept I felt shimmering at the margin of my awareness in the theater — whatever notion I nearly possessed needs no name; it’s a mere token of the emotional epiphanies I passed through: necessity, love, the Absolute — but simply that I won’t be able to convince you of the film’s importance. What’s important to me might not be important to you, after all, each heedless of the other’s universals.
One further note: I recommend taking the film as a fable and its events as literal imaginary events — as opposed symbolic real (parable), literal real (documentary), or symbolic imaginary (dreams), for example.
Hors Satan takes place in and around the village of Ambleteuse on the Opal Coast of northern France. The landscape is astonishing; wind is its primary characteristic, blowing through the woods and the marsh grasses and across the beach. In fact, the land is the film’s central force and strongest presence.
That’s saying a lot, because David Dewaele and Alexandra Lemâtre — in her first film role — give incredibly expressive, quiet performances as the Guy and the Girl. They’re also both riveting to look at. I hadn’t seen Dewaele before, and his face was a shock at first. He has a weak jaw, weathered features, a mouth often frozen in a frown, and a steady, penetrating gaze. His gait has something other-than-human about it. Lemâtre is beautiful as well, characterized most obviously by her pallor and short dyed-black hair.
Hors Satan admits no small talk, witty banter, windy pontificating, or sweet nothings. There’s also no music, which is the only kind of masterpiece for my taste. Music enough are the sounds of wind, footsteps, breathing, and birdsong (as well as a briefly hallucinated two-chord organ progression buried in the whir of the 35mm projector during a scene in which the Girl and the Guy pray on their knees while facing a cow pasture suffused with sunlight). The sound recording is synced so that one’s hearing doesn’t track the distance of the source in the frame, which gives the film’s noises the sensuality of a soundtrack.
“The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it’” (Job 1:21).
The Guy knocks on a door in the village in the morning. It opens and a hand passes him bread in a napkin. The hand is the Girl’s. Much of the film comprises what can fairly be described as plain visual exposition — plain and gorgeous. Violent episodes punctuates a series of walks that the Guy and the Girl take, hopping fences and stepping under wires.
(If you’ll excuse a bad joke, for a film in which so many steps are taken, I never came upon a misstep, a scene awry or decision rashly made. As cinema is a world unto itself, so is Hors Satan.)
The Guy is a drifter (read: ascetic) and a prophet. His god remains unnamed but not unrevealed. Whether beyond the temptation of Satan or a Satan of the outdoors, the Guy works violently and without relish. It’s important that we never witness him savor anything in an egoistic way. The only time he smiles is when he puts his hands over the Girl’s eyes from behind, which frightens her.
Some say that God is good, but they have it backwards: the Good is God. The Good that the Guy serves, worshiped among the heather in the temple most heathen, is a version of sexual justice. I write that with great trepidation, because in addition to shooting the Girl’s abusive stepfather and bludgeoning the park ranger who kisses her against her will, his method of sexual exorcism also involves forcefully “kissing” a young girl who’s “possessed” (pubescent), as well as magically making a woman froth at the mouth when he fucks her (with her initial consent). The Guy appears to be inspired with the mission of curing the villagers of their lust, which would explain why he resists the Girl’s advances and disavows his desire for her: in order to give her what she needs (or perhaps what Nature needs for the work of its miracles), rather than what she wants. While watching the film, that mission appeared to me ecstatic rather than tragic, divine rather than insane. At this point I’m obliged to introduce a proposition: sexual healing or the healing of sexuality is necessary for an end to the reproduction of abuse.
As Simone Weil writes in Waiting for God (1951), “I am obliged to tell myself these things so as not to be afraid of my own thoughts.”