The new decade began with two giants of world cinema – Olivier Assayas and Raul Ruiz – foraying into long form storytelling to widespread critical acclaim with Carlos (2010) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), respectively. Now comes the television debut of a somewhat niche but equally formidable auteur – the reigning king of miserablist French art-house cinema, Bruno Dumont. And to complete the sea change, the new narrative format is accompanied by a new genre – a comedy! – another first for Dumont.
This latest effort came similarly garlanded with great notices when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar section – the four 50-minute episodes shown one after the other (with 5 minutes of credits only at the end of the last episode) to constitute a single 3-hour, 25-minute feature film. Most importantly, amongst its plaudits was being named the No. 1 film of 2014 by Cahiers du Cinéma, especially significant for the ICS as the previous two films before Li’l Quinquin so selected ended up winning Best Picture awards from the ICS – Holy Motors (2012) and Stranger by the Lake (2013) (our 2014 winner).
Even without these laurels, the film handily recommends itself, unfolding as a droll murder mystery in a small provincial French town. Dumont launches things with a memorable and iconic image – that of a dead cow (stuffed with the chopped-up remains of the wife of a local farmer) being hauled out of a World War II-era bunker by a helicopter and swung over the sylvan countryside. It is an arresting image, carefully composed, and a strange one that perfectly encapsulates the tone of the movie.
The murder mystery plot, being investigated by Sheriff Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his aide Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore), gives Dumont the opportunity to create an expansive panorama of the small town as he weaves together a rich tapestry of several characters and subplots which mingle and crisscross in remarkable ways, at first tangentially and then increasingly fatefully. Chief among these is a little “playground” spat led by the titular character Li’l Quinquin (first-billed Alane Delhaye), a street-wise tough kid, and his hell-raising gang of three classmates against a local Muslim kid, Mohamed (Baptiste Anquez).
Through the impetus of this jolting murder, Dumont is able to expose the racism, xenophobia, adultery, familial tensions and malaise buried deep in this community – cheerful topics for a comedy! If all this recalls Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), fear not, as Dumont’s film has considerably more color – both pictorial and comedic.
The primary key of operation for Dumont is the theatre of the absurd. There are no jokes in the dialog, or clever repartee or punchlines, though there is slapstick comedy (a funeral hosted by a giggling pastor is riotous). There might not be belly laughs in the picture but a constant sense of levity and amusement prevails even when events take a dark tone. A tense shootout late in the movie is staged in a ridiculous manner so that it feels arbitrary and not-so-serious, yet the outcome is anything but.
The eccentricity is exacerbated by the rich characterization. Dumont has boldly filled his cast with many variously skilled performers, it would seem, possessed as most of his characters are with some personal tic or speech singularity (Pruvost’s walk, Delhaye’s kooky smile, amongst others). Except these tics are beyond performance; they are so persistent, so much a part of the characters and so entirely unremarked upon that it becomes confrontational. Another layer of reserve is added while viewing the film as you are left wondering what part of the performance is “acted” and what part is an actual “tic”. You are afraid to laugh, lest you laugh at an actual disability. But Dumont likes this tension throughout, daring the viewer to make of it what he/she will, and keeps a liberatingly even hand with his performers, treating them just like anyone else and not sentimentalizing them in any way.
Those who get too fixated on the murder mystery aspect of the film might ultimately feel disappointed as Dumont reveals indifference towards the outcome. Though the plotting isn’t exactly light on incident and the number of corpses steadily mounts over the course of the four episodes, there is no urgency built into the scenario. There is a lackadaisical pace to the proceedings, as Dumont is more interested in the milieu and observing these people and painting a portrait than making a thrilling genre picture. While the finale might not provide the closure that some members of the audience are looking for, it achieves a powerful poignancy and sense of pathos as Sheriff Van der Weyden bemoans “the exterminator” who has been afflicting these people but finally, much like Dumont himself, gazes upon them with benevolence and compassion.
Handsome lensing by Guillaume Deffontaines would attest to the fact that this absolutely is a theatrical motion picture. Many long takes prevail and some of the helicopter sequences are marvelously choreographed and composed. Pic will be pan-and-scanned for television. Lastly, of note are three long musical performances shown in full – two performances of the original English-language song “Cause I Knew” by Lisa Hartmann, who appears as a reality TV contestant and sings them herself, and a Bastille Day parade band performance. The original song is a lovely one of teenage yearning and, in the estimation of this reviewer, should be in Oscar contention this year. A church organ solo rendition of the song performed on-screen late in the movie is especially poignant.