French director Bruno Dumont (‘La Vie de Jésus’, ‘L’Humanité’) makes civilian and military life look as banal, brutal and base as each other in this quiet, sparse study of male brute force that should suck the last drop of hope from all but the most happy clappy viewers. The film opens in the director’s home territory of northern France, where gruff farm-hand Demester (Samuel Boidin) occasionally has his silent way in the fields with expressionless, pliant Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), the local bike. Dumont then cuts to the dusty theatre of an unnamed desert war when Demester and a neighbour, Blondel (Henri Cretel) are called for service in a war of which they know nothing. Time and place are vague. The war is modern (there are helicopters, communications equipment, burning oil fields), but when the soliders are collected from their farms by truck, we recall the rituals of World War I or earlier. The pleas for universality are obvious, the allusions to Iraq even more so. Too often, though, Dumont’s special brand of metaphysics just feels like very flimsy realism.
Whether at home or abroad, Dumont’s men are barely human. If a woman pulls down her knickers, you screw her. If your fellow soldier is gunned down, you open fire. This vision of war and Pas-de-Calais is one of Hell on Earth. Rape, murder, castration: you name it, Dumont delivers, and all with a matter-of-fact, scientific style of directing. As the men brandish their guns in sunnier climes, Barbe’s suffering suggests that she’s paying for the sins of her menfolk. Or is she as blocked as they are? Dumont doesn’t hate his characters; he just thinks they’re stupid: no one thinks, no one learns, everyone acts. It’s the most Godless film you’ll see all year.