Comedy of Terrors
By Adam Nayman

L’il Quinquin
Dir. Bruno Dumont, France, Kino Lorber

L’il Quinquin is less of a departure than it may seem. Yes, it’s true that Bruno Dumont’s new production is a comedy, which does separate it to some degree from his other films; “droll” is not an adjective typically applied to the guy who made Twentynine Palms. But it would also be misleading to say that L’il Quinquin, which was produced for Arte Television in France, is an entirely different animal than its predecessors. It’s more like a wacky and welcome mutation of the species.

For instance, it’s not hard to imagine L’il Quinquin’s eponymous, preteen semi-protagonist (Alane Delhaye), who lives on his family’s farm in Boullonais (photographed by Guillaume Deffontaines as if it’s the middle of nowhere) growing up into one of the wastrels in La vie de Jesus. As in that startling debut feature, Dumont visualizes youth as a period of extreme emotional isolation coupled with a kind of mindless pack dynamic. The kids here ride two-wheelers instead of the earlier film’s motorbikes, but the imagery of their peregrinations is strikingly similar. The youths in L’il Quinquin are pretty benign as far as juvenile delinquents go (they have a fondness for firecrackers), but the show’s epically scaled running time—200 minutes, split evenly across four fifty-minute episodes—allows plenty of room for thing to go rotten. With time, Quinquin and company’s mischief-making seems less a coping mechanism than an expression of something truly feckless and sinister, especially when their crew starts hurling racist epithets at the Muslim boy newly settled in their midst. The provincial xenophobia of Le vie de Jesus lives on.

It would be difficult to peg L’il Quinquin as a sociological critique, however. The story is painstakingly disguised as a thriller à la Dumont’s great L’humanité (1999), the film that put him on the art-house map. Once again, there is a serial killer on the loose within an unsuspecting French backwater, and once again, nobody seems to know who he might be. In L’humanité, Dumont conjured up a detective so painfully empathetic that his attempts at bringing a murderer to justice seemed almost comically pathetic. That sheep-eyed copper played by novice actor Emmanuel Schotte made for a uniquely hapless investigator, and he has a doppelganger in L’il Quinquin in the form of police captain Van Der Weyden (the amazing Bernard Pruvost), who doesn’t just bring to mind Schotte’s Pharaon de Winter but also his countryman Jacques Clouseau (with facial tics worthy of Inspector Dreyfus to boot).

Whereas the cop in L’humanité was finally overcome by the gravity of his task (the final scene, where De Winter shows up at the police station in shackles, offers a metaphysical variation on idea of the cop who always gets his man), Van Der Weyden is utterly unflappable in the face of gruesome crime scenes. Yet his macho posture is unconvincing in the extreme. Wobbling in and out of his police car like a silvery spinning top, he barely appears capable of finding his own feet, much less the culprit who has killed one of the villagers and stuffed the remains inside the carcass of a cow—a ritualistic slaying to rank with anything on True Detective. Accompanied on his rounds by his mild-mannered, borderline simpleton partner, Carpentier (Philippe Jore), Van Der Weyden evinces bafflement at every aspect of the crime he’s meant to solve, but he’s not a mirror for the audience as was Pharaon de Winter. In L’humanité, the detective’s anguish is palpable; here, we get only the spectacle of rank incompetence, mixed with an arrogant condescension that Pruvost modulates perfectly against his off-kilter physicality.

It should be said at this point that despite the silliness of the performance and the plot points—and the ones that follow, which also involve corpses stuffed inside cows Dumont directs the material more or less the same way as in La vie de Jesus or L’humanité: with a slow, measured pace that alternately evokes anticipation, dread, and boredom (or some combination of all three). The cinematography is pretty much the same, too: Guillaume Deffontaines contributes an extended series of exquisite widescreen compositions. As in his first two films, the portrait of small-town life is almost anthropological in nature, with the camera remaining at a clinical (as opposed to respectful) distance from the gaggle of slovenly nonprofessional actors, except in this case one doesn’t have to squint to see the wryness inherent in the gaze. The long scene that concludes part one, set during a funeral service for one of the killer’s victims, depicts church rites as a kind of attenuated slapstick with parishoners being manipulated to sit and stand in their seats by a rascally kid who’s commandeered the podium. The joke is on the group’s guileless good graces and herd-like deference, but it’s satirical rather than mean. Another joke, a little harsher and equally hard to miss: a lone man sitting there amidst the pews in plain view, clad in a black balaclava. Is he the killer who has eluded Van Der Weyden? And why doesn’t anybody see him?

Dumont’s strategy in this and other scenes is to mitigate any sense of pretentiousness via a kind of deadpan perspective. What’s impressive—bordering on remarkable—is that it works over such a long period of screen time. It won’t really do to compare this miniseries to other comedies, televised or otherwise, but think of how many basically inventive or inspired farces burn out long before their endings (one example: the very tangentially similar cop spoof Hot Fuzz). The basically repetitive nature of even the best serialized storytelling is usually figured into film vs. television debate, but Dumont uses it to his advantage: he wryly emphasizes the evenness of the proceedings and then smartly spikes the action with broad dialogue or sight gags. (A late bit where the hard-driving Carpentier brings his police vehicle around the corner on two tires like Herbie the Love Bug brings the house down).

The key point is that the overt humor does not alternate with the more sobering components of the story. Instead, they’re blended in a way that keeps both sides simultaneously heightened (the way they sometimes are in Buñuel). The slowly escalating manner in which Quinquin and his friends torment and ostracize their town’s dark-skinned new arrival—especially after the boy makes advances on a popular girl with designs on being a singing star—is disturbing, and coalesces shockingly at the beginning of the fourth episode, in a set piece which feels in some ways like an extension of Hadewijch and its contemplation of radicalized religious violence. This very upsetting sequence is but one example of Dumont’s meticulous storytelling control, in which every potential conflict or tension gets paid off in one way or another. Even the intentionally repetitive elements, like a banal English-language pop song sung in three different contexts—at a funeral, at a talent show, and then in mocking parody out on the street—are developed so that they have cumulative impact.

That sense of an artist in control is precisely why, as in L’humanité, the ambiguously staged ending isn’t all that confusing. It’s strange and abrupt, perhaps but also perfectly in keeping with everything that’s come before—in the story, and in the director’s other work as well. It’s impossible to consider L’il Quinquin as anything other than an auteur work, which is why its reception as a detour of sorts is a little misleading. For all that Dumont does differently here, he also stays resolutely on track. In a year when a lot has been written about the upshot of name filmmakers taking their acts to television— from House of Cards to The Knick to The Red Road—it seems as if Dumont has lost the least in transition. In fact, he’s produced one of his major pieces.