Directed by: Bruno Dumont.
Written by: Bruno Dumont.
Starring: Alane Delhaye (Li’l Quinquin), Bernard Pruvost (Commandant Van der Weyden), Lucy Caron (Eve Terrier), Philippe Jore (Lieutenant Carpentier), Philippe Peuvion (Père Quinquin), Lisa Hartmann (Aurélie Terrier), Julien Bodard (Kevin), Corentin Carpentier (Jordan), Pascal Fresch (Mr. Campin), Jason Cirot (Dany Lebleu), Baptiste Anquez (Mohamed Bhiri), Stéphane Boutillier (Mr. Lebleu), Frédéric Castagno (Vétérinaire), Andrée Peuvion (Grand-Mère Lebleu), Lucien Chaussoy (Grand-Père Lebleu), Cindy Louguet (Mme Campin), Céline Sauvage (Mère Quinquin).
With the possible exception of Michael Haneke, there is probably no other contemporary director who punishes his characters – and the audience – as much as Bruno Dumont. His films have been compared to Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer– and there is a similarity there to be sure – but Dumont seems much more like an active participant in his films. He isn’t an invisible presence; he seems to be deliberately messing with his characters and his audience. So the word that Dumont had made a comedy was intriguing. There is nothing in the other Dumont films I have seen – L’humanite (1999), Twentynine Palms (2003), Hors Satan (2011) and Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) – that was at all humorous (at least not intentionally – Dumont, at times, is so serious that you cannot help but giggle at the parade of misery he trots out). But his latest, Li’l Quinquin, which started it life as a TV miniseries in France, but has played festivals as a single 3 hour, 25 minute (which is how its playing in limited release – and on Fandor, which is where I saw it), is a comedy in some ways. But it isn’t a laugh out loud comedy with lots of jokes – it’s more of a surreal comedy in the David Lynch way, mixed with Dumont’s typical questioning of the ugliness of humanity. Li’l Quinquin then is a surprising thing indeed – a Bruno Dumont comedy that still feels like a Bruno Dumont film. I didn’t think that was possible.
The movie opens with the grisly discovery of a body – it has been chopped up and found inside of a cow. As the movie moves along, the body count rises, and the bodies are found in various disgusting ways – more in cows, but also in slurry tanks or eaten by pigs, etc. Dumont doesn’t show very much of the blood – and he doesn’t really show any of the violence itself – but that still doesn’t make it easier to take. The movie focuses on two characters – Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), the police detective in charge of the investigation. Weyden is an bizarre character – he looks like he could play Albert Einstein in a biopic without much makeup or hair work done. He is also a bundle of bizarre facial tics, and a strange walk. I don’t know if Pruvost has these tics and walk naturally, or if he affected them for the movie itself – like almost all Dumont actors, he is an amateur who has never worked before, so I don’t know. He seems like a comic figure – an Inspector Clouseau type – at least at first. But as the movie moves along, I think he proves himself to at least be a competent – if eccentric – investigator. The other main character is the title one – Li’l Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), a boy of about 12, who hangs out with his “girlfriend” Eve (Lucy Caron), and his buddies all day, every day (it is summer vacation). They get into mischief, and always seem to be lurking behind Pruvost every time a body is found.
The movie is long, and broken into four parts – which shows us the miniseries roots. But it doesn’t play like four different episodes, but instead one long movie. The various parts end and the next episode starts seemingly right away – you could remove the title cards and you would never guess the movie was a miniseries. Because the movie is so long, the characters get more complex as it moves along – especially Li’l Quinquin. He seems like a harmless kid – getting into trouble, but nothing too bad – lighting off fireworks, sneaking in where they aren’t supposed to be, etc. But as the movie goes along, and Dumont introduces a different plot thread – that of xenophobia and anti-immigrant feelings towards the Muslim and African immigrants in the small French town – and no one is perhaps more racist than Li’l Quinquin and his friends. Yet, the movie never makes him into a truly “bad” character – he can be a jerk when he’s with his friends, but his difficult home life can explain part of that, and when it’s just him and his girlfriend, he can actually be rather sweet and sensitive. This is a Dumont character through and through – where the goodness and badness lay side by side in one character.
The film is long, but it is never less than interesting. It held my attention throughout its entire runtime. But it never really reaches the next level – that would push the movie from good to great. Perhaps because Dumont knew he had more time than ever before, he introduces so many characters and plot threads, that some seem to get lost in the mix. He also doesn’t seem all that interested in solving the central mystery of who did all the killings – which are clearly related, as all the victims know each other (many of them, intimately). But Dumont doesn’t provide an answer – hell he doesn’t really give us a clue. As Weydon says near the end of the movie – all the suspects have been murdered. In some ways, this links it to some of the best crime films of the last decade – Memories of Murder, Aurora, Police Adjective, Zodiac, etc. But here, it kind of feels like a copout – just one more Dumont provocation. The film overall works – and it’s interesting to see Dumont work in a different mode than you are used to, even if the ultimate destination is the same. But like many of Dumont’s films – I think the film would work better if Dumont didn’t try to provoke as much as he does.