Shown at the Cannes Film Festival as a full three-plus-hour-long feature film but broadcast on French television as a mini-series before being released in its long form to a limited number of film theatres, Lil’ Quinquin is a novelty within Bruno Dumont’s filmography in many various ways: It’s his first venture into television, his first film to exceed two hours in length and his first overt comedy. It is also, regrettably, his most flawed film to date.
The good news is that the departure from the austere bleakness that typified Dumont’s filmography, far from being the source of Lil’ Quinquin’s problems, is actually one of the strongest points in its favour, and a good reason to keep expecting great things from him. His distinctive long still shots, which had up until now captured as much beautiful pain in the human face as they had underlying menace in the most banal of landscapes, become stages on which his typical cast of non-actors becomes a gallery of natural masters of comic timing. Scenes as simple as a priest fussing over another’s cassock or a choirboy repeatedly ringing an instrument that signals the priests to kneel behind the altar become set-pieces that recall the best of Laurel and Hardy. At its best, Lil Quinquin’s contrast between these magnificent moments of burlesque comedy and the somber drabness of its rural murder-mystery plot creates a strange kind of grace that’s almost pure in its lack of similarity to anything current western film and television have to offer1. The funeral scene, in which the aforementioned comical moments involving priests take place, is perhaps the best example: In-between those minutes of levity that seem, like much of the village, to exist in their own world, a teenage girl’s soulful English-language pop song (written and composed by the actress herself, Lisa Hartmann) performed with her arms spread as if she were playing for an adoring concert audience rather than mourners of a murdered woman, feels both humourous (especially when combined with shots of a serenely enthusiastic organ player) and poignant in its incongruity. It perfectly embodies how apart these villagers seem both from us and each other (everyone seems to be living in their own little world) and yet how disturbingly alike us they are in their self-made refuges from pain and discomfort.
Lil Quinquin’s problems stem from Dumont’s use of the bizarre murder-mystery (mostly involving human body parts found inside cows) and French Northern setting to revisit his first two films, The Life Of Jesus and Humanité. Though he manages to put a darkly comical spin on the latter’s theme of the slow encroachment of evil on an ordinary village as witnessed by a helpless policeman, his reuse of the former’s trope of a gang of racists picking on a North African Muslim is more of recycled than fresh. Putting aside the fact that an increasing number of local news report and testimonies suggest that such hate crimes, while sadly still existent, are now less common than those committed against whites and non-Muslims in banlieues, Dumont’s attitude towards Quinquin and his racist bullying of black kid Mohamed bears much less insight than his comparatively more compassionate and non-judgmental depiction of the comparatively more unpleasant protagonists of The Life Of Jesus and Flanders (and the latter’s crimes included horrifying wartime rape). More damning is his filming of Mohamed muttering “Allah akbar…” in close-ups after yet another scene during which he is subjected to racist abuse (in which, for the first time, Dumont’s direction of non-actors fails to give the situation its bite), clearly marking him both as a universal martyr of supremacist humiliation and as a ticking time-bomb. It constructs his subsequent breakdown and shooting spree (of which he ends up being the only victim, by self-inflicted gunshot wound) as an excessive reaction towards French racism and, by extension, implies most similar outbreaks, of which there has been an increasing amount in France, to have the same causes. A simplistic and sadly rather common view. This combination of heavy-handedness and naiveté is extremely disappointing coming from a filmmaker who specializes in the unspoken and whose portrayal of religious fanaticism in Hadewijch was profound precisely because, rather than being about one religion or all of religion, it examined the basic hunger for God – or for any reason to believe – that exists within most of us.
And yet even amidst such clumsiness, there is undeniable comic beauty to be found; much of it takes the form of the meandering gendarmerie commandant Van Der Weyden, who is in charge of the murder investigation. Paired with his mostly-toothless sidekick Carpentier, Van Der Weyden spends most of his time shambling from crime scene to crime scene, exercising more strength telling Quinquin and his friends off than doing actual detective-work. His interviews with witnesses and suspects are short and inconclusive, and he never seems too interested in annoying them more than he already has. In the hands of a professional actor, Van Der Weyden would at best have come across as a Lynchian take on Columbo. As played by non-actor Bernard Pruvost, he is one of the most memorable film characters of 2014. Pruvost, like several other cast members, suffers from obvious physical disabilities: Aside from his lopsided torso and slightly diminished left arm, he also has noticeable facial tics that make him constantly raise and cock his eyebrows and blink. But never once does Dumont encourage the audience to laugh at his disabilities as a freak show audience might. Rather, he directs Pruvost in a way that uses those disabilities and that unique body of his for an entirely unaffected comic performance that builds the character as much as it causes amusement. Quite soon, his unique corporeal presence and thick Northern-accented mumbling become an integral part of what makes him identifiable and even likeable in spite of his incompetence: Surrounded by corpses, racist kids and uncooperative villagers who’d rather mourn and go on with their day than seriously think about what’s happening, he and Carpentier are refreshing in how fundamentally decent and natural they are. Pruvost’s thick little moustache and occasional funny walks have earned him many comparisons to Charlie Chaplin, but his fast-paced rumbling voice and surprisingly deft little movements are more reminiscent of the great Swiss master Michel Simon’s immortal performance as Père Jules in Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante. It ranks up there with Emmanuel Schotté in Humanité and Julie Sokolowski in Hadewijch among the best performances Bruno Dumont has ever caught on screen.
Lil’Quinquin’s retrospective on many plot elements and themes of Dumont’s past work has led some to speculate as to whether or not it may mark a new direction in his career. While the noticeable stumbles in that retrospective are disappointing to behold, his unforeseen (and yet, in hindsight, unsurprising) mastery of understated visual comedy – who could forget Carpentier driving towards his boss in a police car on its side? – can only provoke excitement for the future.
1The best single comparison to another film one could conjure would be Werner Herzog’s surrealist comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small, not the least because both films use physically disabled protagonists with a comic efficiency that still respects their dignity as human beings.