REVIEW: DVD Release: Sous Le Soleil De Satan

Film: Sous Le Soleil De Satan
Release date: 22nd March 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 93 mins
Director: Maurice Pialat
Starring: Gerard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat
Genre: Drama
Studio: Eureka
Format: DVD
Country: France

Given the subject matter, Sous Le Soleil De Satan (Under The Sun Of Satan) courted much reaction and controversy upon its original release, although it did take home the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1987.

Based on a novel of the same name by Georges Bernanos, Sous Le Soleil De Satan centres on the inner conflict of the young, overzealous, rural priest Donisson. Self-flagellating, in a state of constant intense contemplation, he is ready to give himself over to God to cure all the world’s ills. Yet, at the same time, he is torn as to whether he is in fact doing the work of Satan himself.

In a parallel story, we meet Mouchette (Bonnaire), a 16-year-old seductress who has fallen pregnant. Flittering between her various elder lovers, she ends up killing one with a shotgun, and threatens to disgrace the other with the revelation of their affair if he does not help to terminate the pregnancy.

As Donisson sets off to another parish to gain some peace of mind, he experiences visions off the beaten track. He is confronted by Satan himself, before attempting to return to his mentor, only to meet Mouchette at the outskirts of the town. There in this dawn twilight he experiences another vision and tells her life story, her deepest, most vile, secrets, attempting to turn the young girl towards God. The next morning she takes a knife to her throat. Donisson is sent away to a monastery and then is returned to service at another rural parish where his reputation as a saint in modern times is cemented with his resurrection of a dead child...

Anyone who has seen GĂ©rard Depardieu in action knows he is a fine actor who throws himself into his performances, and here his quiet intensity simmers as the young man who is both humbled by his circumstances and desperate to break free. Accentuating this maverick disposition, Donisson is presented as a loose cannon of the order - a McBain of the clergy, if you like. “Inner life today is a battlefield of instincts,” Menou-Segrais warns him, “there’s no room for a saint in such a world, or else he is declared mad.” Further, what could have essentially been the same tale as The Last Temptation Of Christ, albeit without the controversy of having to depict Christ himself as in the throes of Satan’s thrall, is somewhat different – and perhaps braver – than the Scorcese picture, in the way Pialat depicts this spiritual turmoil. The mysticism that imbues the story is presented without any irony, as if such visions are a given in reality, which is refreshing to see in a modern drama. After all, it is usually the curiosity value of such spiritualism that is at the basis of its use in contemporary horror or fantasy, the genres most commonly engaging with such factors today.

However, despite all this, the filmmaking is so uninspiring that Donisson’s trials are rendered prosaic, his torment sedated by the slow pacing and overly didactic screen writing. Unlike many other achievements of adaptation, only near the end of the movie is there any justification given for this cinematic treatment of what may as well have remained as prose. The scene in which Donisson returns life to a dead child is beautifully shot, the dust dancing in the dim light shining naturally, yet directly, upon the waking child. Donisson’s lurching, his yanking, by invisible forces as the film reaches its climax is also an unnerving sight that gives Depardieu his dues, where he has otherwise been smothered by the poor editing and lengthy dialogue.

But while these later scenes give life to the main narrative, the parallel story of Mouchette that punctuates the first hour is consistently brilliant. Bonnaire’s sly seductress is of the Nabokovian variety; sauntering on bare feet somewhere between naivety and manipulation, sweetness and spite. Mouchette is more Margot than Lolita, an intriguing young girl who the viewer is never quite sure of. The scene in which she kills her lover is fantastically rendered. The camera spies her wandering absently over to a table, toying childishly with a shot gun, before falling into deep contemplation with the weapon in her hands. Our eye then leaves the doorway, panning over to her man who walks across the room and through the open door we can no longer see beyond. Angry at her insolence, his rant is stopped dead by the gun blast, off screen, and with Mouchette’s reaction flittering between shock and agony, then cold calculation, we are unsure whether this is murder or manslaughter, cruel revenge or a mistake. It is a shame that Bonnaire’s character does not take up much screen time, as it is with her presence that the film comes alive - her meeting with Depardieu brief yet electric with possibility.

This is an intriguing film in many respects, but is ultimately a sedate rendering of an interesting story. Sous Le Soleil De Satan was apparently booed at Cannes when Pialat received its greatest honour, and while that reaction is perhaps unwarranted, it does seem that the award was, too. JGZ

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