A look back to Dumont’s earlier, more disturbing, comedy, as seen at the 2014 London Film Festival
If you’re acquainted with Dumont’s previous austere, disturbing work at all, you might be surprised, as I was, to see that this film is scheduled in the ‘Laugh’ strand of the festival. What’s more, it was made as a 4-part TV series, another thing that seems at odds with Dumont’s very cinematic style. Whatever it’s provenance, though, to me the 200 minutes was a box of delights – the best kind, the kind that occasionally snaps at your hand the further you dib in.
It tells of a series of increasingly bizarre crimes in the rural landscape of the northern French coast – a landscape we first see in all its unexceptional prettiness stretching beyond a large farmyard dungheap – as ominous as you like to make it.
Quinquin, played by the marvellous Alane Delhaye in as good a performance as I’ve seen all year, is a young rascal who lives on a farm near the crime scenes, a watchful, hard-faced scallywag in the mould of young Antoine Doinel of the 400 Blows, and just like Jean-Pierre Léaud, you can’t take your eyes off him every time he’s onscreen. But like many of the characters here, there are two sides to his nature, and his scenes with his great friend/love Eve he shows an almost unbearable tenderness. In fact their chaste embraces are some of the most intense and affecting I’ve seen for a long time onscreen. Together as they so often are with Eve riding on the back of his bike, they have the look of one powerful creature out of myth. Equally ambiguous is the local police chief Van de Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), a bumbling whimsical fellow with a vast and impressive range of facial tics, who nevertheless sometimes speaks wisdom, and seems to connect wih Quinquin.
Physical, or mental, quirks – though that really is putting it mildly – afflict so many of the characters: Quinquin’s Uncle Dany, newly returned from the mental hospital, staggers and whirls around the farmyard, perpetually on the point of falling. Quinquin’s grandfather sets the table by hurling china and cutlery onto it. The priest and his fussy sidekick giggle uncontrollably while conducting a funeral service (no one seems to mind) where the floppy-haired organist plays with as great a panache as if he were at an opera house. An English tourist throws an autistic tantrum inn a seaside café. A cousin of Eve’s, a kind of uber-scallywag, appears out of nowhere dressed as a kind of spiderman and hurls himself opimistically at walls, hoping to scale them. Wonderfully, one time it works. Even Carpentier, de Weyden’s sensible lieutenant, has fantasies about driving his police car on two wheels. And just when you’ve forgotten about it, he does. Most characters totter and stagger and go crooked, even the self-confident lads trip about over the shingle of the beach, as if there’s no stability, no real security on this earth.
Others are too still, troubled and impenetrable behind their odd faces. There’s a perpetual background of anomie (as demonstrated in a savage dodgem ride), and this takes over the film, a madness some what one would call clinical, some totally mundane, (never have majorettes or crap pop songs seemed so unnerving) and little sense of any distinction between. Animals have strange powers – are the cows really ‘mad’? And watch out for those pigs! La commédie humaine and la bête humaine inextricably entwined. This unsteady world is so fascinating that it distracts from the puzzle of the actual killings, which you almost forget about, it seems there can never be a solution.
Funny and frightening coexist in a sometimes savage way, but there are moments of great beauty too, such as the white horses, whose appearance is as numinous and affecting as were Quinquin and Eve’s embraces, and Van de Weyden’s half childlike half erotic delight in them is more touching than disturbing. Trapped in their modes of behaviour, so many are dealing with the great fissure between what is expected of them and what they are – Van Weyden ‘acts’ the policeman, the young moslem acts the fanatic when his attempts at being part of the community fail, the churchmen act their part but can’t sustain it. Seeing through these cracks is troubling and liberating. Only Eve seems untroubled, sound in her self belief. Though made as a 4-part series the whole thing seems to me to work perfectly as one single, intense, cinema experience.
The company of mostly first-time actors do wonders, but supreme is the young Delhaye as Quinquin, a face and a presence we have to see again.
Written October 2014