Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin was shot near the city of Calais in the far north of France on the Atlantic coast, using chiefly local actors. The director made a point about this in his press conference at Cannes after the film’s premiere, adding that only actors who lived within a 20km radius of the shooting locations were selected to be in the film. It’s an admirable gesture belying a desire to go further than most directors in choosing a setting for a film, going beyond just the use of local landscape and extending to the locals themselves. The total unfamiliarity of the accents (at least to these ears) is striking, and I imagine quite refreshing for anyone interested in the history of French cinema; so much of it is Parisian-based or more broadly “urban” that the thick northern accents carried by the film’s actors at first seem almost incongruous with what we associate with the movies.1
As has been noted in the initial responses to the film, Li’l Quinquin is, at least superficially, quite out of place in Dumont’s filmography. It is his first film as director commissioned specifically for television, where it will be screened by the Franco-German network Arte as a mini-series in September. Up until then, it is playing at festivals as a three-and-a-half hour feature film with brief intertitles (the names of the episodes) separating each segment. These episode titles, with their foreboding names such as The Human Beast2, At the Heart of Evil, The Devil Personified, on the surface seem to indicate a continuation of the bleak, sinister themes present in Dumont’s previous work. While these are certainly still present in Li’l Quinquin – it is after all about a series of gruesome murders – they are filtered through a comic sensibility that is new and surprisingly effective.
Playing with the tropes of the procedural crime series drama, Dumont’s film sees two fairly inept but endearing policemen attempting to solve a string of related murders that have deeply shaken a small French town. On the fringes of this investigation is a young boy, Quinquin, who becomes involved after finding one of the bodies, but is mostly reluctant to help out due to his entrenched mistrust of the police. As the story continues, the bodies pile up, and the two policemen make little headway in solving the case. As in the festival’s retrospective drawcard, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere, there is a mystery that remains unsolved, both directors defiantly leaving the loose ends loose at the close of the film. As with Rivette’s film, we realise that narrative closure is not what we are going to get, which, as spectators, moves our attention elsewhere.
In Li’l Quinquin, it’s a kind of physical comedy almost completely absent from modern cinema that steadily takes over our focus. Praise in this regard must go to the phenomenal lead performance from Bernard Pruvost (pictured above, seriously channeling the late great Chilean director, Raúl Ruiz), whose manifold facial tics and awkward body movement are as good as any physical comedy I have seen since Jacques Tati. Moreover, Dumont’s mise-en-scène perfectly sets up this humour drawn from the movement of the human body. He manages his characters pictorially against the landscape and other narrative elements in a visual rhyme that is quite difficult to explain but whose effect is uniformly funny.
Dumont balances these comic moments with some deeply troubling reflections on French society that are anterior to the main detective narrative, particularly on class and France’s perennial problem of racial intolerance. While Quinquin and his gang of friends are initially introduced to us as a pack of mostly harmless ruffians, their encounter in the second episode with a Muslim family of North African descent and their two sons is brutal, revealing a deeply entrenched racial hatred. These incidents are weaved in cleverly with the macabre murder investigation, echoing the police captain’s repeated mutterings: “We are at the heart of evil.”
Fans of Dumont might be disappointed by the director’s turn to humour in Li’l Quinquin, and experiencing the film as an uninterrupted feature can make the continuous slapstick somewhat grating at times. Nevertheless, Li’l Quinquin is sui generis, absolutely unlike anything that played at Melbourne or will play at any other festival this year.
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