dir: Bruno Dumont, France, 2014
In the month of January alone, Chicago-area cinephiles will have the opportunity to experience what are likely to be the two most important film events of 2015: Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking 3D feature Goodbye to Language will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a three week run beginning on January 16 — in a hugely ambitious and admirable move, the theater is temporarily installing 3D equipment just for the occasion — and, as of last Friday, Bruno Dumont’s 200-minute, 4-part television miniseries Li’l Quinquin has been streaming in its entirety via fandor.com, with a theatrical release forthcoming. In a neat coincidence, both of these French masterworks topped the prestigious Cahiers du Cinema critics poll of the best films of 2014. Both are also being released in the U.S. by Kino/Lorber, an always enterprising distributor whose continued devotion to the best in world cinema from the silent era through the present day, in theaters and on home video (their recent Blu-ray of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is astonishing), has established them as a national treasure. The fact that Li’l Quinquin actually edged Goodbye to Language out of the top spot in the Cahiers du Cinema poll (where Godard, a former Cahiers critic, has achieved a kind of sainthood) is a testament to the magnitude of Dumont’s achievement. Even though Li’l Quinquin will be receiving a theatrical rollout in the States during the first quarter of 2015, I recommend that interested cinephiles who aren’t already on fandor sign up for a free trial and stream it online. Seeing it in 50-minute episodes at home, even if one decides to “binge-watch” most or all of it in a single sitting, is the way the series was meant to be experienced.
Like many American cinephiles, I first became aware of Bruno Dumont when his breakthrough feature, the infernal police procedural Humanite, was released in 1999. That disturbing epic about the investigation into the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in a small town in northern France, tricked out with an austere visual style and philosophical underpinnings, immediately struck me as one of the defining films of the late 20th century. My subsequent encounters with Dumont’s work, backtracking to his first feature The Life of Jesus (1997) and moving forward with Twentynine Palms (2003) and Flanders (2006), caused my initial enthusiasm to dampen; what I perceived as Dumont’s obsession with rubbing the viewer’s nose in ugliness struck me as both morally dubious and monotonous, so much so that I never even bothered to catch the director’s last three films (2009’s Hadewijch, 2011’s Outside Satan and 2013’s Camille Claudel 1915). Li’l Quinquin, however, is so masterfully made, so alive and so surprisingly and delightfully off-the-wall, that it makes me want to fill in on what I’ve missed and reassess Dumont’s entire career. In many ways Li’l Quinquin marks a return to the subject matter of Humanite: it too begins with the discovery of a female corpse in a rural French village, and uses the subsequent police investigation into her murder (and subsequent murders) to paint a portrait of a unique social milieu while also offering philosophical inquiries into the relationships between community, humanity, culpability and evil. What’s new — and very welcome — to Dumont’s work here is an absurdist sense of humor that occasionally veers into outright slapstick comedy; where the ultra-serious Humanite drew critical comparisons to Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Li’l Quinquin is closer in spirit to the David Lynch of Twin Peaks.
Li’l Quinquin begins with the unforgettable, borderline-surreal image of a dead cow being airlifted out of a WWII bunker by a helicopter (filming in his customary majestic long shots, Dumont apparently disregarded the notion of television aesthetics altogether). The police soon discover that the corpse of a woman has been stuffed inside of the cow and begin a criminal investigation. Dumont’s masterstroke is to show how these events unfold not primarily through the eyes of the police but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. “Li’l Quinquin,” son of the local farmer “Pere Quinquin” Lebleu (Philippe Peuvion), has a girlfriend, the symbolically named Eve (Lucy Caron), and by allowing the plot to unfold mainly from the semi-comprehending vantage point of these semi-innocent characters, Dumont essentially splits the duality inherent in Humanite‘s childlike cop, Pharaon de Winter, into two separate realms: that of the town’s adults and that of the town’s children. The main police detective in Li’l Quinquin, Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) — named, like de Winter, after a famous Flemish painter — pointedly despises children, whom he is continually shooing away from crime scenes. Without resorting to caricature, Dumont paints Van der Weyden and his partner Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) as not only hilariously bumbling and incompetent but also, even more hilariously, as the two least photogenic cops in film history: the former has a toothbrush mustache and uncontrollable facial tics, and looks “rumpled” in a way that recalls Albert Einstein more than Columbo, while the latter is a beanpole who appears to be missing most of his teeth. Dumont’s knack for casting and eliciting remarkable performances from non-actors with striking physiognomies has never served him better than here.
Without giving any more of the plot away, the tension Dumont creates between the adult world and the children’s world in Li’l Quiquin handsomely pays off about half-way through the series when he introduces themes of racial and religious intolerance. One way Dumont bends the television format to his advantage is by using his expansive running time to show how prejudice is the result of social conditioning that can pervade an entire community (and the fact that one crucial scene takes place during a Bastille Day celebration indicates that Dumont means for his location to function as a microcosm of France as a whole); an idea that may have seemed trite in a two-hour movie seems fleshed out in its full thematic complexity at three and a half hours — and this is a series, keep in mind, that is still chock-full of narrative loose ends (rumor has it that a second season is on the way). Li’l Quinquin also strikes me as by far the most optimistic of Dumont’s films that I’ve seen in what it has to say about people; although very little is cut and dried in terms of “messages” one can take away from Dumont’s work, I think he wants to use the framework of the police procedural here in order to make viewers think about moral choices and how tenderness and beauty can flower even in the unlikeliest places and under the unlikeliest of circumstances (i.e., amidst both banality and evil). Dumont himself recently spoke, somewhat mysteriously, about the surprising interrelationships of comedy, irony and optimism in the series: “I believe irony is what is going to save us. That is also one reason why I really enjoyed making a comic film now. Comedy is the road for irony and it’s also the road for hope. Even if we know that Li’l Quinquin is only a small beast growing up to be a big one, there is some irony in knowing this. We also know that there is the possibility that he could become a good man. And he is a good lover. Really, irony is my optimism.” If we are living in a “golden age” of television, as countless cultural critics believe, Bruno Dumont’s masterpiece is proof positive that this golden age is not restricted to America alone.
You can check out the trailer for Li’l Quinquin via YouTube below: