A Man Escapes: Departures, Continuities and Surprises in Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin

Originally printed, in German, in the Austrian film journal kolik.film (Issue 22, 2014).

Who knew? Perhaps the only person not surprised by news in 2013 that Bruno Dumont was making a four-part comedy for French television was Dumont himself. For supporters and sceptics alike, the Frenchman has been an intransigent beacon of inimitably po-faced filmmaking since making his debut feature with La vie en Jésus in 1997. This is serious filmmaking in the Bressonian vein, too: for more than two decades, Dumont has been the most willing inheritor of and fitting comparator to cinema’s dauntingly beloved powerhouse of ascetic sobriety. All of which is to say, whether consumed on television sets or on cinema screens, P’tit Quinquin is something of a departure.

Or is it? In its coarse, coastal setting, in its quiet emphasis upon the moral conflicts of everyday life, and in its suggestive, ambiguous nature, P’tit Quinquin is as much a Bruno Dumont picture as was Twentynine Palms (2003)—whose climactic eruption into unbearable violence is retained here as a dreadful and repetitive undercurrent. Indeed, as a police procedural not unlike Dumont’s second feature Humanité, P’tit Quinquin revolves in essence around a series of hideous acts in smalltown northern France. The twist is that while in earlier films our guts churned in anticipation of something appalling, here the violence is offscreen, a structuring principle that helps keep chief investigating detectives, Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his sidekick Carpentier (Philippe Jore), one step behind an outrageously resourceful serial killer.

Events unfold through the eyes of young P’tit Quinquin (Alain Delhaye), a blonde-haired tyke whose cleft lip and hearing aid distinguish him among a set of pals that also includes his sweetheart Eve (Lucy Caron). Eve’s name is about the only thing connecting P’tit Quinquin to the religious preoccupations of Dumont’s earlier works; Van der Weyden, recalling the fifteenth-century Dutch painter of holy triptychs, might be another. For the most part, though, this is refreshingly God-free: as if to encapsulate the mischievously innocent curiosity of his unprecedently young protagonist, Dumont seems keen here on freeing himself of past thematic burdens. The few occasions on which religion is evoked seem tongue-in-cheek—none more so than naming one episode ‘The Devil Incarnate’, or allowing two actors playing a pastor and an altar boy to giggle their way through a hilariously offbeat funeral scene.

The bigger surprise here, then, might be that Dumont’s first foray into all-out comedy should turn out to be so effortless a continuation of previous works. That’s more our fault than his, though the Frenchman has arguably been too singular for his own good when it comes to identifiably auteur-driven filmmaking. In the aftermath of his bullishly horn-grabbing honeymoon period at the end of the 1990s, many agreed that he was a one-trick pony that had drifted off to spend years in the wilderness. But Dumont’s aforementioned intransigence extends also to his production schedule: he does things not only his own way but at his own speed too. Following the muscular one-two combo of his debut and sophomore efforts, maybe the problem—if indeed there was one—was with other people and their insurmountably high hopes.

While his output appears to be a succession of one dour film after another, it might come as some surprise to remind ourselves that Dumont has made only six features since his debut—his most recent being last year’s Camille Claudel 1915—which was itself an experimentation of sorts, starring as it did that previously unthinkable A-list talent, Juliette Binoche. A filmography of seven features simultaneously seems a little and a lot: on the one hand, until 2013 Dumont averaged a new film every 2.4 years (in the same period, Michael Haneke averaged a new film every 1.8 years), while on the other hand he seems to have been around forever, so pervasive has his own influence been upon a certain strand of arthouse austerity.

The point is that for a filmmaker from whom each new work is guaranteed a certain amount of critical buzz, Dumont’s output hasn’t been all that prolific. Nor has it, crucially and deceptively, ever settled into a status quo—even though each film is identifiably his own. Matching its unnamed killer, P’tit Quinquin also eludes one’s grasp—tonally as well as narratively. Just as Quinquin offsets his opening tough guy persona by embracing eternal love Eve, so on a macro level the work arcs from crudely surreal horror (body parts found up a cow’s backside) to exceptional poignancy (Van der Weyden fulfilling his childhood dream to ride a horse) by way of an unsolved murder case. Demonstrating Dumont’s prowess at long-form storytelling, the shift is cumulative. It emerges in increments, arising from that steady tension between an ensemble picture and those genuinely exciting occasions when two unique characters come colliding together in the same scene.

This potent interplay, between individual eccentrics and the idiosyncratic community they make, invites obvious comparisons to Twin Peaks. But the television series that P’tit Quinquin most resembles might be The League of Gentlemen, the British sketch-based sitcom that first aired on UK television in 1999—the same year Dumont made Humanité. In that show’s first season, an ongoing plot concerned a new road being built through its semi-rural fictional town, Royston Vasey, which would allow an influx of unwanted strangers from neighbouring cities; in the fifth episode of the first season, a heinous beast, composed of various creatures, is found hanging in a farmhouse; over the course of the show’s second season, a rising body count among the locals is caused by insidiously sourced meat from the town butcher—a mystery in which death itself appears to be epidemic.

There are heavy suggestions in The League of Gentlemen that Royston Vasey is inhabited largely by inbred families, and the violent insularity of its setting is matched by a palpable sense that just about everyone who lives there has some sort of learning difficulty. One of the reasons P’tit Quinquin feels like Dumont’s most challenging work in years—if not his most challenging ever—is its director’s decision to cast non-professionals with varying learning difficulties. Forget the practicalities of directing such an ensemble—Jason Cirot as Quinquin’s Uncle Dany appears to be especially afflicted; it’s Dumont’s persistently non-exploitative inclusion of these performers that impresses most. The burning question, now that he’s broken free of Bressonian fetters with such palpable relish, is whether Dumont will continue this leap into profitably new terrain. Who knows?

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See also:
Cracking Up: A Conversation (with Neil Young, for Mubi).
Fiercely ambiguous and probably provocative: Hors Satan

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