Mental disorder, disease, murder, and confounding evil. Not exactly the makings of a slapstick comedy, but this is Bruno Dumont we’re talking about. Known, by the few who dare to know him, as a seriously depressing and morose filmmaker, Dumont is so fascinated by the grotesque side of human nature, he can’t even make a comedy without putting the subject front and center. Previous to this latest one, Dumont went against the grain of working with non-actors and cast Juliette Binoche in the title role of “Camille Claudel 1915”—a convincingly desolate examination of creativity at the mercy of madness. Now, Dumont is back in television format with the mini-series “P’tit Quinquin.” The paradoxical artistry of Dumont extends even to the format; though it’s made for television and shot in aspect ratio for television sets, the version presented at the Directors' Fortnight was in cinemascope and unapologetically cinematic.
In a northern rural French town, a community is stirred by a string of gruesome murders, and the genius detective on the case is Captain van der Weyden (Bernard Provost) and his loyal double-toothed sidekick Carpentier (Philippe Jore). Mostly told from the point of view of a little rascal nicknamed P’tit Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), the murders become more and more mysterious as the body count grows and list of suspects fills up.
Under anyone else’s guidance, the three-hour-and-twenty-minute running time for a comedy would be unthinkable, but while Dumont’s style can lean toward the dull a little too forcefully at times, you can’t really say it’s boring and “P’Tit Quinquin” is no exception. The direction here is completely controlled and poised, the landscapes and characters effortlessly speaking the same kind of language and hiding a deep resentment and evil beneath the often tragi-comical appearances. Provost is hysterical as the bumbling detective, turning in a “facial” performance for the ages with twitches, squints, and deranged glances producing much of the laughs (think, Peter Sellers’ Clouseau meets Inspector Jap in a Marx Brothers film). The children’s performances are at the charred heart of the film, Delhaye commanding the screen with his charismatic presence and whimsical attitude toward the mundane around him. If you’re a fan of Dumont, do yourself a favor and seek this out in cinemascope as much of what the rustic greens of the country will be lost completely on a TV set.
The quixotic nature of the story, and with a couple of scenes overstaying their welcome, “P’Tit Quinquin” is a bit of a gruelling watch, but it’s rewarding and layered in such a way that it invites (believe it or not, suspicious Dumont admirers) repeat viewings. Once it becomes clear that this is no mere murder mystery, and the bizarre turns into the ludicrous and into the depraved, Dumont’s analysis of life’s toughest questions (reaching for an understanding of the very essence of evil) as told through the simplest of ways becomes tremendously captivating. And it’s worth noting, again, just how laugh-out-loud funny this is.
After the screening, Dumont stuck around for a fascinating Q&A and, thanks to an English translator, we were able to record it and have transcribed it for you here. He touches upon some interesting points, and the take-away can be appreciated by any fan of the filmmaking process, not just Dumont’s. [B+]
...on the subject of painting and the references to it in the film with Rubens, and the detective's name.
"Whenever I make a film I have to go back to what nurtures me, what inspires me, and painting is part of this food that I get and this inspiration that I have, and it's also in this relation between art and religion in painting. Also, when everything is out of size—this disproportion—is something I need in my art [to which] I can refer to in painting. It's always pushing me further, and pushing over the limits, [so I can] finally get to the inner aspect of people and things."
...on the choice of that particular location in the north of France for the film.
"In order to sound right, you must know the place. These are the landscapes that I know, the locations that I know, the people that I know. I know their accent. This is the way I know how to tell their stories. It's not even a conscious choice, it's my home, my land where I'm from."
...on why he keeps coming back to the same region even though his education has taken him away from this land.
"I may have been away from it because of my education, but this hasn't made me feel far from it, on the contrary I still need to go past by the same path. The only thing that has changed by studying philosophy or mystics is that my perception is sharper, but having this higher perception just makes me feel like even more going back to the same path and to the same people. I love these people, and I think there is a very simple manner to look at them. So I cover the different spectrum, but I go on looking at them and filming them and I think there’s nothing intellectual in it, it’s just a matter of sensitivity so I’m just more sensitive but I don’t have to nag anyone about it, its all about filming them in a simple way. That’s what cinema is about.”
“All these people belong to the very specific place in which I filmed. I choose a location, and there is a 20-km perimeter not any wider. I won't go to a different town to seek these people, they all belong to this specific location. They are mainly gardeners. I was lucky enough to find plenty of gardeners who were seeking a seasonal job; so they were free for me during this period. It’s really very important to have people belonging to the right place, it’s when you want to film flowers, you cannot get them from elsewhere so they have to belong to the place to sound right. It’s all a matter of resonance and I’m very sensitive to the harmony of this resonance. People can only sound right if the landscape sounds the same as they do.”
…on laughter and the message of the film.
“There is no message, except that when we laugh; we laugh out ourselves, and I’m sure you didn’t laugh all the time. Just sometimes.”
…on why he chose to shoot in scope.
“I chose scope because I like the fact that it brings some balance between the character and the speech of the lines, and the landscape. I found it important to let the landscape speak too and not just to focus on […] the characters. It makes the framing difficult, but I do like difficulty. I just found that it made the image more balanced. There are two versions; there is version two for TV so the frame is tighter which is fine for the format of television, but on a large screen like this I think it’s worth to have a 2:39 format and be able to enjoy the landscape too.”
[at this point, a woman who was standing next to Dumont but never got introduced, interjects with the following;]
“Just about seeing it as a ‘cinema’ film, we are really happy that you enjoyed the film but we wish to remind you that this is a series. It was meant, written, and directed as a series. I think it’s part of the body of work of Bruno Dumont to be able to express himself and his worlds through different formats, different media, and different narrative forms. So it’s part of the very substance of this one to be a TV series, and there are actually two versions; one for television and one for cinema screens. It will appear in several international festivals in [the cinema] format.”
…his reaction to someone who "felt the same admiration for the direction, the landscapes, the animals, but [who] didn’t […] laugh because like all the others it gave [her] a profound feeling of despair."
“I’m sorry if it didn’t make you laugh; it did make other people laugh. Your relationship to a film, and to cinema, is very much determined by yourself, so what is relevant is you.”