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CANNES – A police investigation like few others unfolds on the northwestern shores of France in Li’l Quinquin (P’tit Quinquin), a four-episode TV series that shows the comedic if not necessarily the lighter side of French filmmaker Bruno Dumont (the extremely dour Cannes Grand Prix winners Humanite and Flanders).
Shown as one epic, 197-minute film in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, Li’l Quinquin confirms that, even in continental Europe, some of cinema’s name auteurs have no qualms about moving into television and that, in this specific case, the small-screen is certainly the better for it. The beautifully shot and frequently funny film shown in Cannes is reportedly different only in its aspect ratio, with the original widescreen photography retained for the cinema version (it will be altered for its TV premiere).
Outside of France, where commissioning TV channel Arte will premiere the series, this potent mix of oddball comedy and, in the latter reels, glimpses of the more familiar existentialist Dumont, could potentially work as a theatrical release, though a little tightening would be a boon not only for the behinds and bladders of dedicated cinephiles but also for project’s pacing if it has to be consumed in one sitting, with long scenes of music performed at a talent contest and a Bastille Day celebration especially ripe for some pruning.
A police officer investigating a crime was also the protagonist of Humanite but Quinquin’s bumbling and mumbling police captain Van Der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) couldn’t be more different, as he seems to have studied at the Peter Sellers School for Police Investigations. It’s debatable whether Van Der Weyden, whose facial and bodily tics get laughs practically from the first frame, is even the main protagonist, as the film opens with and is named after a mischievous little kid, Quinquin (Alane Delhaye, who has a hearing aid and a mesmerizing face), the son of an apparently normal farming family 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).
The motor of the story is the discovery of a dead cow in a WWII-era bunker, which seems to have been stuffed with human remains. Several questions need to be answered: How did the cow get into the bunker, whose remains are inside it, how did they get there and why was that person killed? The first of the four approx. 50-minute episodes, The Human Beast, follows Van Der Weyden and his colleague, Carpentier (Philippe Jore), a driving fanatic taking their modest police car’s capacities to the maximum, as they investigate the crime while Quinquin and his trumpet-playing girlfriend, Eve (Lucy Caron), and his buddies from the village both try to follow the investigation and generally get up to a lot of mischief, often involving firecrackers.
The second episode, The Heart of Evil, reveals a second dead cow, again stuffed with human remains, which has the police more or less zeroing in on a potential culprit, except that the third person who’s found dead, in episode three, The Devil Incarnate, was their prime suspect. Rather than a logical explanation of the case, the closing part, Allahu Akbar, sees several more bodies pile up, in turn raising even more questions.
Clearly, Dumont’s main interest lies in the characters and their eccentricities and the apparently sheltered — Paris or even the provincial capital Lille might as well be on another planet — but not less harsh world they live in. Racism and problems related to immigration, jealousy, extramarital affairs and sibling rivalries all turn this apparently peaceful rural community into a place where murders — including suicide — are allowed to happen and every adult seems to be capable of evil of some sort.
Indeed, by contrasting what the investigators are trying to uncover with the youthful adventures of the children, Dumont seems to suggest that the world of adults, despite appearances, is so rotten that it can only be stomached and perhaps even saved by two things: laughter of the tragicomic kind and a child-like innocence that somehow needs to be maintained into adulthood (not coincidentally, both law-enforcers are very child-like in their manners).
Humor is often used as a release or to illustrate how, in a tiny village, everyone is aware of each other’s business but no one’s saying or doing anything to stop what’s going on (the Chronicle of a Death Foretold syndrome). This becomes painfully and hilariously clear in an absurd sequence in which the villain, hiding in plain sight in a balaclava, attends the funeral of one of the victims while Van Der Weyden suggests that the perpetrator “might” be hiding among the funeral attendees.
As in his other features — with the notable exception of his last film, Camille Claudel, which starred Juliette Binoche — Dumont uses only locals from his native northern France with next to no acting experience, which, in combination with the use of real locations, lends the film a typically Dumont-ian veracity. However, that doesn’t mean that this comedy-drama isn’t full of playful references, from a scene in which the infected cow carcass is lifted out of the bunker by helicopter that recalls the airborne transport of a sacred cow, Jesus, in La Dolce Vita to some clever in-jokes that reference the names of Flemish painters. Indeed, names are extremely important here, as the innocent if impish “little boy” character of the title and his girlfriend, not called Eve for nothing, are seen as the hope for the future of mankind.
Camerawork by Guillaume Deffontaines (Camille Claudel) is fluid, though having the characters in the center of his expansive widescreen compositions for close-ups will, of course, not have the same effect on TV.
Production companies: 3B Productions, Arte France, Pictonovo
Cast: Alane Delhaye, Lucy Caron, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Corentin Carpentier, Julien Bodard, Baptiste Anquez, Lisa Hartman, Frederic Castagno, Stephane Boutillier, Philippe Peuvio, Celine Sauvage, Jason Cirot
Writer-Director: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Guillaume Deffontaines
Costume designer: Alexandra Charles
Editors: Basile Belkhiri, Bruno Dumont
No rating, 197 minutes
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