To hear Bruno Dumont tell it, the seed for his second feature, L’humanité (1999), was planted by a performance in one of the final sequences of his 1997 debut, La vie de Jésus, in which the protagonist of that film, Freddy, is under interrogation by a detective. Most viewers probably won’t remember the nonprofessional actor who plays the officer in question: he stands at the window in profile, briefly questions Freddy without deigning to look in his direction, and leaves the screen, never to return. While English speakers assess acting performances in vague terms such as “good” and “bad,” or according to the highly subjective criterion of “believability,” the French are more categorical: a performance is “right” (“juste”) or “wrong” (“faux”). The performance of the police officer in La vie de Jésus was indubitably, hopelessly wrong, so wrong that Dumont had to find someone else to dub his voice in postproduction. Yet there was something about his delivery that inspired Dumont not only to decide that his next film would be about a police detective but to write the screenplay with this performer in mind. Dumont was drawn to the very thing that was “wrong” about the actor’s performance — a voice and presence so ill at ease with the conventions of film that they took the viewer out of cinematic reality. Dumont’s instinct told him that this break with reality might be a form of poetry, and that this poetry might bring his cinema closer to the truth. By embracing the poetry in the wrong move, Dumont made L’humanité, a film important not only because it is an unflinching, profoundly singular exploration of sex, death, guilt, and compassion but also because it released Dumont’s cinema from what naturalism there was in La vie de Jésus and set the tone for one of the great bodies of work in contemporary film.
As he had planned, Dumont offered the lead of L’humanité to the man who had inspired the screenplay. When that performer turned him down, Dumont hired the unemployed military veteran Emmanuel Schotté. While we don’t know what L’humanité would have been like with the actor for whom it was written, we can be grateful that Dumont found Schotté. Every minute that Schotté appears on-screen as Pharaon De Winter, the unlikely police detective investigating the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl in a small town in French Flanders, we are confronted with a presence at once so awkward and so graceful that it demands constant reassessment of the actor, the character, and the world around him. The first time I saw L’humanité, I had to stop myself from laughing aloud when Pharaon appeared with a new haircut two-thirds of the way into the story: he looked like an absolute buffoon. In the next scene, I decided the haircut had unleashed his inner heartthrob. This is only one trivial example of the way Schotté’s performance as Pharaon keeps us off-kilter, second-guessing what we see. Indeed, actors do not deliver great performances simply by persuading us that they are someone else, but by continuing to elude us, repeatedly shifting and being discovered anew, so that our perception is honed to a state of extreme acuity. In L’humanité, Schotté is a conduit to our sensitivity precisely because his presence escapes definition and the expectations we place on a leading man. The fact that some viewers initially wondered whether Schotté suffered from a mental disability only goes to show how little some of us like to face the unexpected — or simply to be moved.
As Pharaon, Schotté walks slowly, head stooped, arms hanging stiffly at his sides, with his hands dangling open. The focus of his big, staring eyes floats a little toward his prominent nose, giving him the look of an innocent or, yes, possibly a dullard. His resting face is a study in sorrow but is occasionally illuminated by a disarming smile. No matter what he does, he has an intensity of purpose and feeling that threatens to burst out of the frame, turning a throwaway moment of small talk about the weather into a seismic event by the mere concentration of his gaze. Then there is his voice, the soft voice that doesn’t fit with the big body. His speech is deliberate, with the hint of a regional singsong occasionally lifting his flat delivery. He sounds the same whether he is saying that the rape and murder of a child are horrible things or that he’ll go to the beach tomorrow. While every acting teacher in the world would tell you that Schotté’s performance is wrong, it is exquisitely right for L’humanité. Paradoxically, the “wrongness” makes the most outrageous behavior “believable”: Pharaon’s face contorting into a scream in the middle of a field; his long, fierce kiss with an acknowledged murderer; even the moment he lifts off the ground and levitates in his little garden parcel — all these are believable not because Pharaon is like someone we know but because Schotté makes us understand that anything can happen when he is on-screen.
“The miracle in Dumont’s agnostic film is not that a man rises a few inches off the ground in sorrow or meditation but that, in the face of horror, he finds it within himself to give comfort to the wrongdoer.”
The levitation, which Dumont stages in such a way that we cannot be sure of what we’re seeing, is not the most amazing thing we witness in L’humanité. On the contrary, in this most elemental of films, in which we are close to the soil and the sky, the sea and the flesh, in which we feel the time it takes to get from one place to another, the most amazing thing is the most basic, the most human: compassion, and possibly forgiveness. The miracle in Dumont’s agnostic film is not that a man rises a few inches off the ground in sorrow or meditation but that, in the face of horror, he finds it within himself to give comfort to the wrongdoer, perhaps even seeking to suck the evil out of his body with a kiss as avid as it is sexless. The embrace, here carried to a grotesque extreme, is a motif found throughout Dumont’s work, from the moment of comfort Marie and Kader experience inside a monument to the war dead in La vie de Jésus to the clutch that saves a young novice from drowning in Hadewijch (2009) and the oddly potent mix of childlike sweetness and adult solemnity each time Li’l Quinquin hugs his girlfriend, Eve, in Li’l Quinquin, the 2014 miniseries that is in many ways a comedic remake of L’humanité and that inaugurated the extraordinary run of comedies that continued with Slack Bay (2016) and Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018). In his avowed ambition to show the invisible in the visible and uncover an element of the sacred in contemporary life, Dumont returns again and again to the simplicity of a face resting on a shoulder, a hand caressing the back of a head, two bodies brought together in solace. The miracle may be in the depth of feeling, the communion achieved despite the cruelty of the world.
Of course, L’humanité also deals with more violent impulses: the urge to kill and the urge to fuck. For Dumont, the police investigation of a brutal sex crime is little more than a pretext for a deeper exploration, as evidenced by the fact that he sets the murder on a Friday, leaving himself the weekend to deal with other things. Having dispatched the crime scene in four clinical shots, the filmmaker spends a leisurely forty minutes observing Pharaon at play, on a bike ride or an excursion to the seaside with his neighbor Domino and her boyfriend, Joseph. Only after the weekend is over does Pharaon get to work trying to solve the heinous killing. Yet this structural oddity is hardly a mark of callousness on Pharaon’s part. We have seen how deeply affected he is by the crime. By following Pharaon outside of the investigation and into his time off, Dumont allows the murder to work its way into the fabric of everyday life, going against the sensationalistic representation of violent crimes as the perverse and inhuman deeds of freakish lone bogeymen found in entertainments such as The Silence of the Lambs or True Detective. The genuinely disturbing aspect of L’humanité — and what makes its final act of compassion so moving — is that the murder is considered on a spectrum of ordinary human behavior.
Nowhere is this clearer than when Dumont deconstructs such powerful impulses as the desire that sweeps over Domino when she, Joseph, and Pharaon encounter an indecently handsome buddy of Pharaon’s wearing a well-filled Speedo. As coolly as he set up the murder scene, Dumont cuts between Domino’s face and the man’s groin, shows Domino looking away, then abruptly walking off to sit down and squeeze her hands between her thighs. This swimsuit moment might read as comedy if it weren’t so obviously uncomfortable for Domino. Dumont is reminding us that there are urges we cannot control, but also that what we do with them is another matter. This simple acknowledgment is reactivated in a subsequent series of shots in which Pharaon fixes his intense gaze on isolated parts of his superior officer’s plump body.
Cutting between Pharaon’s face and close-ups of the police chief’s fleshy neck, Dumont gives no indication of what Pharaon is feeling, but the jarring insistence on these sweaty body parts suggests it is potent. Is the urge erotic or destructive? Or does the sight of this red skin under which you can nearly see the blood pounding remind Pharaon of the life that was taken? Whatever he is experiencing, it feels profoundly human, which is to say that it is rooted in sensual, corporeal reality. Pharaon is our guide in this awareness of the body throbbing with life, moving close to sniff Domino, for whom he quietly pines, when she tells him she is dripping with sweat. An eternal observer, Pharaon even wanders into Domino’s front room and watches impassively as she and Joseph couple, attending to their pleasure in a manner neither ecstatic nor tawdry. Sex and bodies are presented bluntly in L’humanité, and nowhere more so than in two shots of women’s genitals that appear to reference Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, the famed 1866 oil painting of a recumbent woman’s thighs parted to reveal her vulva, her midriff visible above her dense pubic hair but her head obscured. Whether deliberate or not, the reference to Courbet is less significant than the contrast between the shot of the hairless and bloodied genitalia of the dead child and the subsequent image of Domino’s vulva, resplendent in its coat of hair, expectant but rejected after Domino has crudely offered herself to Pharaon.
Another art-historical reference is undoubtedly intentional: Pharaon is the descendant and namesake of the real-life painter Pharaon De Winter (1849–1924), born in Dumont’s hometown of Bailleul, the setting for this film as well as La vie de Jésus, and like Dumont an artist devoted to portraying the people of his region. When the fictional Pharaon delivers a self-portrait of his great-grandfather to a museum preparing an exhibition of his work, we get to watch him look at his ancestor’s paintings. The vast museum gallery with enormous religious scenes leaning against red walls is strikingly foreign in the context of Pharaon’s small-town life. As such, the scene plays like an odd interlude, arriving about midway through the film, around the same time that Domino’s factory job introduces yet another environment. L’humanité is expanding to take in more of the world, but for Pharaon the center of gravity remains the same.
He arrives at a portrait of a little girl, her gaze boldly leveled at the viewer, and is compelled to close his eyes, then exit the museum. Things rarely fall neatly into place in a Bruno Dumont film; one assumes that the director is going to use this scene in L’humanité to elevate his character through an encounter with an artist whose work he himself admires, to open a horizon beyond the muddy land and brick walls of Bailleul, but ultimately the sequence returns Pharaon to the dead girl in a field. Dumont is wary of beauty: think of the lovely still life of fruit he composes early in the film, only to have Pharaon bite into an apple and practically choke to death. These contradictory cues are typical of Dumont’s aim across the board, which is to lift us while keeping us grounded, to invite us to seek transcendence without losing our footing in reality. This is why the moment Pharaon levitates seems no more extraordinary than the one in which he throws himself into freshly tilled soil, his face resting in the mud. These are only the physical repercussions of the conflicting forces tearing at Pharaon, these urges to love, to forgive, to mourn, or to destroy, all within the realm of humanity as seen by Bruno Dumont.
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