Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 27, 2014 8:51 pm 
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Philippe Jore and Bernard Pruvost in L'il Quinquin

Dumont's miniseries is a metaphysical comedy with sweetness and horror

After for the first time using a name actor, Juliette Binoche, in his grim and depressing costume drama, Camille Claudel 1915, Bruno Dumont has done something completely different in L'il Quinquin (P'tit Quionquin). Cast as a miniseries (in four parts), a form cinema auteurs are turning their hand to more and more these days, it's a strange, droll, later horrible, ultimately inconclusive, murder mystery (police procedural being a genre twice before given serious Dumont treatment). In this tale, set in typical Dumont country, a nondescript, nowhere northern French seaside village,* corpses just keep quietly piling up. They begin with a woman's dismembered body -- minus the head, which turns up elsewhere -- found in the carcass of a dead cow in an old bunker -- while two amiable, odd, rather childlike, but quite proper cops, Lt. Carpentier (Philippe Jore) and his boss, Cpt. Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), ramble around amid landscapes of summer sunshine and pale green grass. Sometimes in the foreground, sometimes the background, there hover some local kids, notably the titular P'tit Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), a feisty eleven-year-old with round face, slightly twisted mouth, and ironic basilisk glare (and a proclivity for throwing firecrackers at aged relatives) and his girlfriend Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron), trumpet player in the town band, whom he carries around on his bike and affectionately necks with, when not hanging with his mates. Perhaps the present is doomed, as Van der Weyden's declarations of Satan taking over suggest, and the only hope lies in this little Adam and his Eve starting afresh. Some viewers find this 198-minute block of segments dull, repetitious, and pointless. But it's on a number of cognoscenti annual best lists and at the top of Cahiers du Cinéma's. Let's try to figure out why.

Even scoffers agree on the magnificence of d.p. Guillaume Deffontaines's limpid, elegant cinematography, beautifully composed in a wide angle format (an oddish choice given the TV destination; but video or theater viewers will be able to savor the original shape). They may be less willing to agree on this: but Dumont's sui generis use of non-actors is brilliant and flawless. Typically some of the key ones arrive with physical deformities or behavioral peculiarities, like Pruvost's constant Touretter-esque facial twitches, causing his gray moth eyebrows and matching Hitlerian mustache to flutter as if blowing in a strong wind (suggesting gentle puzzlement or cogitation, or worry as a natural state). Jore, as his trusty (but nuttily wild, or racing-ready) driver and lieutenant, is abnormally scrawny and missing some of his front teeth. Yet so just is Dumont's choice and use of this pair, that while we find them initially very absurd, in time, and due to their proper comportment, we come to take them as seriously as we would a couple of good-looking movie actors. It's a Brechtian effect: they are real, so they don't seem real, therefore we will them to be real. And yet they're absurd. And that's funny.

Consider the young uncle of L'il Quinquin (who himself has that slightly askew mouth, plus a little hearing aid), Dany Lebleu (Jason Cirot), who at least for a moment (humorously?) Van der Weyden fingers as a the emerging serial killer. "Put the cuffs on him?" he asks Carpentier. This helpless and hapless young man, who seems frighteningly deranged, is muscular and wild-eyed, his main amusement spinning in circles. Speechless, unsteady, sometimes he falls on the ground and has to be helped back inside by Quinquin's dad. Is Dumont's use of such people "condescending," as a viewer on AlloCiné declared? No, Dumont asks us to eschew artificial presentability and accept that real people are a mess, and deformed people both terrifying and holy. It's admittedly a lot to swallow. That's why Dumont's films have at times made me feel the need to collar whoever walks out of the theater with me and start an on-the-spot debate about what it all means.

Not everything quite works. I'd agree with the many who think the first funeral, with the off-key girl pop singer, the priest who can't stop giggling, and the two clerics who squat up and down repeatedly behind the alter as the fuzzy-haired organist showboats and altar boy Quinquin smirks, though this may be the moment that best establishes this film as a work of comedy, is all a bit much. And while Van der Weyden has an Inspector Clouszot bumble that's droller and more Frenchily philosophical with the facial twitches, his meanderings may get old after two-plus hours, given that he remains so flabbergasted by the mounting murder count. Obviously Dumont is interested in character, not action, and he micro-manages incidents with assurance, but the miniseries format is partially wasted given how little narrative is used to differentiate the four segments.

Not that there's no plot line -- as well as, naturally, titles to distinguish the four episodes: The Human Beast, The Heart of Evil, The Devil Incarnate, and Allahu Akbar. The initial victim -- one sees a helicopter lifting the dead cow, Fellini-like -- is Madame Lebleu, the wife of a local farmer, also, it emerges, mistress of a Monsieur Bhirii. Bhiri soon disappears, and so does Monsieur Lebleu's own lover. Finally Van der Weyden declares, smiling, "all the suspects are dead now!". Meanwhile the town emerges as rife with racists, as well as adulterers and angry siblings. A black boy named Mohamed (Baptiste Anquez) who's been called "Négro" (the equivalent of the "N" word in French) goes on a sniper spree, chanting "Allah Akbar."

There's a sense of wells of corruption hiding below a village's seeming peacefulness, but Dumont isn't making any obvious points. His control of his odd cast and droll way of unfolding action avoids conventionality. L'il Quinquin sets a mood all its own. It's a Beckettian, bumbling, Marx Brothers laughing gas nightmare of the proverbial bland uneventful town harboring horror. Nothing here is familiar or ordinary. The looks and hugs exchanged between the two kid lovers are special moments, uniquely sweet and still. Dumont knows how to astound us. He's one of a kind, and here, as the French writers for DVDClassik say in their collective essay "Dumont à travers ses films," he's found a new way of surprising us; the arrival of this extended film may in future years feel historic.

P'tit Quinquin, 198 mins., developed by Bruno Dumont with the participation of CNC and TV5 Monde for Arte France TV, debuted at Cannes in Directors Fortnight, also at Toronto and as a sidebar of the New York Film Festival. On 2 January 2015 it will begin being shown in its entirety on Fandor and in New York theaters (the Film Society of Lincoln Cener). A Kino Lorber release.
*In his Hollywood Reporter Cannes review Boyd van Hoeij points out that the film is set in "the Boullonais region, around Calais, where the people speak Ch’timi, the Picard dialect made fun of in Dany Boon’s box-office hit Welcome to the Sticks (Quinquin is dialect for 'little kid,' as popularized by the eponymous song by Alexandre Desrousseaux)."

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