Perhaps the most reliable windows into Bruno Dumont's sensibility are his sex scenes, which are neither impassioned nor desultory, and often devoid of any context except the need to fuck. There's never any foreplay or kissing, just joyless, mechanical grinding until climax, when the males start grunting heavily—or screaming, in the case of Dumont's last film, Twentynine Palms. For Dumont, sex remains the purest expression of human nature, and he studies the participants like an anthropologist with a clipboard, collecting data for a thesis on how people are no different than barnyard animals. So it's unsurprising when his latest, Flanders, opens on a barnyard in the French countryside, and features a hero whose hunched posture, massive forehead, and gaping mouth place him just a small evolutionary step above a Cro-Magnon. Once again, Dumont cycles through the pet themes of films like L'Humanité and Twentynine Palms, but their repetition is beginning to seem like shtick.
With a good feel for the overcast drudgery of provincial life, Dumont establishes the narrow parameters of Samuel Boidin's world, which revolves around Adélaïde Leroux, the emotionally unstable girl next door. Leroux lets Boidin have sex with her, but she's more connected to another man (Henri Cretel) and isn't shy about rubbing Boidin's face in it. After receiving notice for military service, several young men in the area, including Boidin and Cretel, report for duty and are sent off to fight in an unspecified Middle East locale. While the men are off perpetuating—and being victimized by—the horrors of war, Leroux discovers that she's pregnant and suffers a major psychological collapse.
It seems inevitable that Dumont would go to war, since he's most interested in those situations when humans lose their capacity for compassion, rationality, and thought, and turn instead to the uglier instincts at their core. Though he has a magnificent eye for landscape, his combat footage is woefully unconvincing, from bizarre shots of soldiers traversing the desert on horseback to prop guns that seem borrowed from the Max Fischer Players. Once he returns to the country, Dumont returns to more solid ground by revisiting the tenuous bond between Boidin and Leroux, whose relationship plays out with satisfyingly crude logic. In the end, the only nagging flaw with Flanders is that Dumont has more or less made this movie three times before.