by Lee Purvey
There’s a telltale image early in Li’l Quinquin that in an instant establishes the thematic key by which the narrative proceeds. Already treated to some establishing shots of the luscious French Boulonnais landscape where the story plays out, we think we know what we’re in for when our rascally protagonist carries a bowl of soup out of his house and leans back against the weatherbeaten boards of a farm building, gazing ahead towards the camera. Superimposed over the omnipresent green hills of the countryside, however, is another image: a filthy-looking, possibly manure-covered pile of hay--in one, a reminder of the altogether unsexy realities of rural life and director Bruno Dumont’s own unrelenting interest in the grotesque, the ugly, and the antisocial, themes that carry over here to television and comedy after seven dark features.
Walker Art Center
November 14-15, 21-22
Director: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin, Jean Bréhat
Writer: Bruno Dumont
Cinematographer: Guillaume Deffontaines
Cast: Bernard Pruvost, Alane Delhay, Philippe Jore, Lucy Caron, Philippe Peuvion, Cindy Louguet
Premiere: September 18, 2014 – Germany
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
Divided into four episodes—The Human Beast, The Heart of Evil, The Devil Incarnate, and Allahu Akbar—the miniseries (being shown in its three-hour-seventeen-minute entirety at the Walker starting November 14) follows a police investigation of a series of brutal murders in a small community in Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-De-Calais region of France.
The initial dramatic push comes in the form of a helicopter, which our titular protagonist (played by an impeccably cast Alane Delhaye) and gang of pre-pubescent cronies follow across town to an abandoned military bunker, from which it emerges carrying the body of a cow. The question of how the cow reached the inside of the seemingly inaccessible bunker is a mystery in and of itself, but nothing compared to the subsequent discovery of the body parts of a local woman in the unfortunate bovine’s stomach.
In charge of the investigation are a Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore), a comically incompetent pair that approach their task with the clueless self-importance of Much Ado About Nothing’s Dogberry and Verges. Similar to their Shakespearean antecedents, Van der Weyden and Carpentier spend more time talking circles around each other than actually getting down to the police work in front of them, although Li’l Quinquin’s detectives’ banter takes an increasingly morbid, existentialist tone as the story proceeds.
Quinquin, meanwhile—an enthusiastically vulgar child of about 11 or 12, with the face of a 35-year-old barroom thug—cavorts around town with his true love and next-door neighbor Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron) and various other ne’er-do-well acquaintances, harassing Van der Weyden, the local sexton, and two Muslim immigrant children, one of whom provides the central action for the film’s final movement. While Quinquin’s stream of profanity and, later, racial and homophobic slurs quickly escalates to uncomfortable levels, his precocious and utterly sincere devotion to Eve and charming curmudgeonly demeanor serve to keep the viewer’s antipathies in limbo, as he weaves in and out of contact with the central murder investigation.
As the body count rises without an arrest—suspects only ever seem to be ruled out by their own eventual demise—what first feels like a quirkily twisted comedy in the vein of the Coens’ Fargo or Linklater’s Bernie moves into weightier waters, as it becomes clear an unidentifiable force of evil has been let loose to punish the immoral in a community where adultery and intolerance are par for the course.
True to his established habit of casting mostly non-actors in his films, for Li’l Quinquin Dumont recruited a group of oddball amateurs from the community where he was filming. Significantly, and very much in line with Dumont’s larger aesthetic project, an impossible to ignore portion of the cast exhibit some visible physical or mental ailment. Van der Weyden suffers a violent facial tic every few seconds he’s onscreen, the first suspect (a Mr. Lebleu played by Stéphane Boutillier) is a cadaverous farmer (at first only metaphorically) who emits strange guttural clicking noises from his throat, Carpentier’s teeth barely meet the criterion for plurality, and Quinquin (who himself bears a hearing aid and what looks to be a corrected cleft lip or palate) has a mentally disabled uncle and two senile grandparents. In this apparent obsession with human imperfection Dumont walks a fine line between presenting a world populated by authentic-looking people (as opposed to Hollywood’s ubiquitous attractiveness, for example), or one in which outward imperfections are powerfully juxtaposed with the deeper flaws inherent to all humans, and simply exploiting mental and physical otherness for kicks.
What saves Li’l Quinquin from crossing the line into this more offensive brand of body humor—and what ultimately serves as the film’s strongest suit throughout—is its consistently spot-on deadpan delivery (somewhere between a Dostoevsky novel and Napoleon Dynamite), perfectly suited to his strange, nonprofessional cast.
Dumont takes full advantage of the miniseries format, dwelling with a lethargically winking eye on the official and social rituals of this rural community. Van der Weyden and Carpentier’s ludicrous investigative techniques—at one point, the former takes a break from questioning a murder suspect to ask the very same to lead him around the field on one of the Boulonnais region’s iconic stallions, thereby fulfilling a “childhood dream”—are conducted in total self-seriousness and don’t raise an eyebrow among the rest of the community. The audience is forced to sit through two very shrill and unabridged vocal performances by Eve’s older sister, Aurélie, of an English-language song apparently written by the actress, Lisa Hartmann, herself. Uninterrupted minutes are dedicated to Quinquin giving Eve a lift on his bike or the clumsy performances of the local marching band.
Occasionally, this comedic strategy veers into bland repetition (as in a prolonged, snickering sequence where Quinquin pranks the congregation at the first victim’s funeral), but by and large they ring true, loving renderings of the quiet idiosyncrasies of small town life by a director deeply familiar with such communities through his own firsthand experience. In its stubborn loyalty to this hilariously meditative portrayal of a surreal, bucolic world, Li’l Quinquin is at its finest.
Eventually it becomes clear that Dumont isn’t interested in solving his own mystery. Sure, there are a couple of red herrings thrown out (a mysterious guest in a balaclava appears at the aforementioned funeral without anyone so much as batting an eye), but nothing close to a clear resolution ever comes close to cohering. Instead, Dumont provides us with an increasingly wide-ranging view of the moral shortcomings shared by much of the community—whether its racial and religious intolerance, as embodied in its cherubic figurehead, or Quinquin’s own discovery of a bitter betrayal in his family’s past.
In so doing, both halves of the film—quirky farm chronicle and grisly murder mystery—lose some of their edge, as Dumont seems undecided about which game he’s playing. By the time the cartoonishly grisly murders of the film’s first half are replaced by an all too real suicide in the second, the film has nearly stopped being funny—the avenging killer is still on the loose and the memory of your own laughter lingers like an unpaid debt.