'Coincoin and the Extra-Humans' ('Coincoin et les Z’inhumains'): TV Review | Locarno 2018

Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival
Fascinating, but also repetitive and a bit shapeless.

Four years after 'Li'l Quinquin,' French iconoclast Bruno Dumont is back with a four-part series that continues to explore the crazy life of its protagonist.

The eponymous hero of Li’l Quinquin, the boy with the squashed nose, hearing aid and inquisitive gaze, is not that little anymore in Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (Coincoin et les Z’inhumains), another four-part series from writer-director Bruno Dumont that reprises the characters and setting from the 2014 miniseries made for Franco-German broadcaster Arte. In the first round, Quinquin and his buddies, alongside bumbling police captain Van Der Weyden and his loyal sidekick and mad driver, Carpentier, tried to solve a murder mystery. This time, the same ensemble — though with Quinquin now called Coincoin because… he grew up? — is faced with an epidemic of strange, extraterrestrial gunk that has started raining down on the picturesque Opal Coast region in northern France that the characters call home. 

Occasionally hilarious but thematically less concise and narratively finally stretched too thin to fill the required four-times-52 minutes running time, this is a work that’ll appeal more to Dumont completists than casual viewers, offering some rewards for fans but unlikely to generate any kind of binging among the masses. The first two episodes were shown in Locarno on the 8,000-seat Piazza Grande, with the remaining two relegated to much smaller houses. Other festivals could program this as one long, 200-plus-minute film in much the same way Li’l Quinquin was presented in the Directors’ Fortnight four years ago. 

Four years later, teenager Coincoin (Alane Delhaye, encoring like everyone else) still carries a torch for Eve (Lucy Caron), though she has now moved on to Corinne (Priscilla Benoist), a fierce and androgynous-looking farmhand. Van Der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) is initially confused by the girl’s not-very-girly appearance, finally commenting dryly: “That’s the modern world, with internet and all that.” It’s an early taste of Dumont’s social commentary throughout the new season, which could be mistaken for something semi-improvised and shallow but which belies deeper truths about social change in rural northern France — where it is refreshing to see that a middle-aged police officer is not outraged by a display of same-sex love, just a bit confused that one of the girls doesn’t fit his image of what country girls usually look like.

Of course, progress is slow and also causes countercurrents. There is the nationalist party Le Bloc (clearly inspired by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national), for which Coincoin and his buddy Fatso (Julien Bodart) do some menial tasks. Jenny (Alexia Depret), the Daisy Dukes-wearing daughter of the political group’s regional leader, also catches Coincoin’s eye and, not much later, his tongue. And as in the first season, immigrants often seem to roam through the countryside unmoored. The improvised shantytown in the dunes where they live is visited a few times by Van Der Weyden and Carpentier (Philippe Jore), his trusted companion who’s still fond of driving their Citroen police car on just the two wheels on the driver’s side for show. 

Already early on, a crude but effective parallel is drawn between the anonymous and largely faceless immigrants — conspicuously called “sans papiers” or “without papers” in French — and the blobs of black gunk that start to irregularly fall from the sky and that a forensics expert declares is alien matter. Often, it hits unsuspecting (white) humans and in the process creates what might be the world’s first example of blackface of otherworldly origin. Aliens (as in from outer space) and illegal aliens (as in immigrants and refugees) are thus clearly aligned, while white people are only a pratfall away from becoming like one of either types of aliens, underlining the idea that everything in the universe is connected. 

The mysterious black magma splotches, which look like cow patties and so fit right into the rural landscape, also release a floating light at dusk that can enter an unsuspecting citizen, whose body then balloons and gives birth to a clone of itself without emotions, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (The low-key special effects are on-brand.) An early victim, the rotund suburban husband Monsieur Leleu (Christophe Verheeck), thus finds himself sharing his home with his wife (Marie-Josee Wlodarczack) and his clone (also Verheeck). In a bit of vaudevillian comedy, the two identical men appear in front of the house and through a skylight on the second floor in ways that make it clear there are two of them but without the duo meeting. (Mrs Leleu is just delighted her husband suddenly seems to be everywhere.) 

Indeed, quite a lot of the laughs revolve around the fact that there are two each of an increasingly large number of characters. This creates opportunities for comedic confusion, culminating in a game of hide-and-seek in and around a car that’s a highlight of episode three. There is also quite a bit of old-fashioned slapstick — tiles falling off roofs that hit people in the face; barn doors crashing down; cars flipping over… — and even more so than in the previous series, Dumont has fun using and often twisting French idioms and expressions into material for verbal comedy (some of which is lost in translation). There are also some delicious one-liners and comebacks, like when Coincoin complains to Eve that “girls are too complicated,” and the girl for whom he still carries a torch then matter-of-factly replies: “No. Boys are too simple."  

But while there is quite a lot of funny material overall, on the whole, too much of it feels repetitive. Dumont seems to be aware of this, dedicating the opening minutes of episode three to a complaint about Carpentier doing his driving stunt again. “It’s funny once or twice, not six times!” Van Der Weyden says. And only someone like Dumont would not just let the audience know he’s aware of his love of comedic repetition but also turn this admission into the groundwork for a subsequent bit of increasingly absurd dialogue, so that a six-time repetition suddenly becomes a double punch line. That said, from episode to episode, there is definitely a sense of deja vu, firstly because this is a continuation of a previous season with the same characters who still have the same tics and secondly because indeed a lot of the same material keeps being repeated with no variation or only minor tweaks. 

The four episodes, called “Black Be Black,” “The Extra-Humans,” “Gunk, Gunk, Gunk!!!” and “The Apocalypse,” are all quite free-floating, with not much of an overall seasonal story arc and even less of a per-episode narrative. The first season’s murder mystery at least had clear clues that always lead from A to B — even if B was often a red herring — but there’s less of a logical throughline here so the overall proceedings lack any strong sense of forward momentum. Indeed, none of the episodes could work as a standalone item and once all episodes have been seen, it feels almost impossible to remember what happened in which episode. 

What remains is 200-plus minutes of crazy but occasionally very funny material that’s really a motley collection of topics and influences. There are clear cinematic ancestors, such as the aforementioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as late Fellini, The Birds-era Hitchcock and slapstick masters from Chaplin to Peter Sellers. There are ruminations on immigration, integration, right-wing nationalism and same-sex relationships. There’s even an unexpected and rather surreal interlude that tries to address, in a comedic manner, the child abuse scandals of the Catholic Church (Dumont inexplicably feels the need to have one of the characters explicitly explain the reference, which ruins the joke). 

More freewheeling and less disciplined than QuinquinCoincoin at least again benefits from Guillaume Deffontaines’ glorious widescreen cinematography and the total commitment of Dumont's actors, who were nonprofessionals the first time around but who have now collectively shot over 400 minutes of high-end auteur TV — something very few professional actors can claim. 

Production companies: Taos Films, Arte France, Pictanovo
Cast: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Julien Bodard, Lucy Caron, Alexia Depret, Marie-Josee Wlodarczack, Jason Cirot, Nicolas Leclaire, Priscilla Benoist
Writer-Director: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin 
Director of photography: Guillaume Deffontaine
Editors: Jean Brehat, Basile Belkhiri
Sales: Docs & Film
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)

In French, Ch’timi
No rating, 208 minutes