Following Camille Claudel 1915, his gruelling, etiolated study of the sculptor’s institutionalisation at Montdevergues asylum, French (provoc)auteur Bruno Dumont has now delivered the funniest film of the year in P’tit Quinquin, a knockabout treatise on bucolic idiocy and modern decay from the points-of-view of a bumbling, Clouseau-esque detective, and a gaggle of impish youngsters.
Remarkably, the tonal shifts required for a Dumont comedy are largely subterranean, and inspire reconsideration of his canon with a contextual emphasis on staging. Swapping his austere visual signature – unflinching long takes, harsh diegetic sound, close-ups on excruciating misery – for a brighter palette and looser-limbed structure, which cleaves between wide and medium shots, one wonders if it’s simply the proximity to ugliness which decides the genre of Dumont’s work.
From the first shot of Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), whose cleft lip, indented nose and buzz cut place him firmly into the auteur’s universe, our minds are cast back to La Vie de Jésus, his controversial 1997 debut, and the stage – somewhere in Northern France – is set for a tale of racism, conflicted youth, spirituality and sexual abuse. And it all begins with a cow, stuffed with human body parts…
Heading up the investigation is Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), a gust of foibles whose shock of grey hair and blinking eyes suggest an eccentric intellect, but belie an utterly incompetent mind. Obviously enamoured of US cop shows (“Carpentier, let’s roll!!”), he pursues the case in much the same way a dog would its own tail, but his bemusement runs deeper than superficial mannerisms, and Van der Weyden’s increasing exasperation mines a vein of tragedy permeating the film’s four distinctive chapters (running 200 minutes, it’s adapted from the director’s TV miniseries).
Deeply troubled by the sudden influx of murders which beset his town – so farcical and grotesque that they beggar belief – and equally by his inability to solve them, Van der Weyden suddenly has to confront the notion that he is pursing pure evil; in fact, The Devil Incarnate. More than a theme – though many of Dumont’s films are touched by the omnipresent – Satan in P’tit Quinquin could be argued as an incorporeal character, especially in the absence of any real suspect, or explanation for the illness, death and destruction which plague the town’s otherwise tranquil summer season.
Dismayed by the endless, seemingly purposeless chaos around him, and a mounting body count which he is unprepared for and wholly unequipped to deal with, Van der Weyden is worn down to his last shred of sanity, and his comic eyes finally swell with a red-ringed sadness.
Dumont’s casting of disabled non-actors feels tackier here than it did in Camille Claudel, and the film’s cheapest laughs are at their expense, but the director’s feel for quotidian absurdity is sharp, and at its best when subverting the tone and themes of his past work. There’s a tenderness to his depiction of kids in love and play that also feels new, particularly between Quinquin and his kind-of girlfriend next door (“My amour“), which balances out the silliness and nihilism of the main plot.
Though as long as The Godfather: Part II (1974), P’tit Quinquin sails by on its lackadaisical charm and winning performances, but hopefully its epic length won’t hold it back from UK distribution. It’s easy to overlook films as superficially flimsy as this one, but in the immediate it seems like a major Dumont work – easily accessible and hilarious, yes, but also tackling deep and weighty themes in a way more obviously serious films don’t dare. Bold and genuinely moving, it’s P’tit in name only.
Stars: Alane Delhaye, Lucy Caron, Bernard Pruvost