The Weight of Being
Andrew Tracy on L’humanité

Bruno Dumont’s L’humanité (1999) opens on a sight bereft of humanity, a picturesque sprawl of French countryside that would be lush if not for the grey northern sky above, and the almost clinical detachment with which Dumont’s camera paints it. Almost imperceptibly at first, a speck moves along the distant ridge; a man runs, falls, smears his face across the wet grass, wide eyes staring out of a pudgy countenance. Smoothly, calmly, Dumont moves us in the space of a few shots from a meditative consideration of landscape to an intense confrontation with the human visage. While we could relegate the man’s plunge earthwards solely to some dramatic reason (shock, despair?) Dumont intimates a deeper bond. The earth may not just be passively receiving the man’s body, but returning his embrace.

The source of the man’s distress is soon made clear. The cool beauty of nature reveals a horror: the bloodied vagina of a young girl, pale white limbs smoothly splayed over the crest of a grassy hillock. We have been watching the beginning of a murder mystery; the man is Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), a police superintendent who will shortly begin aiding the police in their search for the girl’s killer. The strangeness of the opening is mitigated somewhat; we appear to be safely in genre territory, albeit slightly skewed. Yet once again the sober elegance of Dumont’s images seems to be pushing us beyond our expectations. Entwined with the dewy sensuality of nature, the girl’s ravaged body is almost part of the landscape, sharing its contemplative beauty. Welcoming a monstrous act into the fold of its serenity, the earth which offers comfort one moment casually accepts horror the next.

Though the framework of the police procedural is intrinsic to Dumont’s design, he seems to take a perverse pleasure in adopting such a schematic only to disintegrate it in the sea of his images. L’humanité is a mystery, but its solution is to be found less in narrative time than in imagistic texture. Dumont is a filmmaker of surfaces, a painter and vivisectionist, crafting dead fictions in order to dissect the living matter of which they are made. “Cinema is not reality. Reality does not interest me. What interests me is its unveiling,” he has said. Rejecting the sterile intellectualism he perceives in French cinema (no mean feat, considering his background in philosophy) Dumont’s plain, uninflected images, both studiedly distant and almost stiflingly carnal, utilize the sensual contact between man and world as the conduit to the immensities which he seeks.

As the Dardennes anchor The Son to the body of Olivier Gourmet, Dumont sees his world through the eyes and flesh of Schotté’s Pharaon, a slow, shambling, awkward man whose odd demeanor cannot be wholly attributed to the loss of his wife and son a year previously. When not bicycling through the countryside, working in his meticulously tended garden, or playing keyboards in the house he shares with his mother, Pharaon is apt to spend his time tagging after his neighbour Domino (Severine Caneele) a sulky, blocky factory worker with whom Pharaon is transparently infatuated and her loutish boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier). Silent and lumpish, Pharaon seems to live chiefly through the random fixations of his senses. Dumont will often let Pharaon’s gaze become that of the camera’s, minutely examining seemingly inconsequential details (the hands of Pharaon’s mother as she slices vegetables, the back of the police chief’s neck as he stares out the window), staring out across expanses of quietly rolling fields, observing the distant sight of England across the Channel. Singularly ineffective as a cop, one of Pharaon’s few instances of police work turns bizarre as Pharaon gently grasps the Algerian smuggler he’s interrogating on either side of his face, leans over, and methodically sniffs his head.

Such inscrutable moments, ostensibly unrelated to the half-hearted murder investigation, seem to direct the film towards psychological case study (another mystery story). But sticking a label on Pharaon is meaningless in the world which Dumont postulates, a mere appendage of the narrative logic which he spurns. If Pharaon is mad, it is a madness moving outward instead of burrowing inward. For he is afflicted with an unbearable burden: a preternatural awareness of the world’s terrible unity, whether in solace or destruction. “He’s suffered,” Domino says of Pharaon, referring to the deaths of his woman and child. It is more appropriate to say that he is always suffering, for Pharaon is incapable of separating his vast love from his vast pain. Everything that brings him joy: his garden, his music, an embrace from Domino hinges irreversibly upon the abomination of the girl’s death, the malevolence which it reveals. As Pharaon’s every interaction with the world dictates the film’s rhythm, the onus of the mystery shifts—no longer “who did this?” but Pharaon’s numbed question to his chief: “How can someone do that?” The killer’s identity is not as important as the cold, monstrous fact of the evil he has brought into the world or that the world has brought into being through him.

For this is Dumont’s conjecture in L’humanité, the crux of his belief in the primacy of the body: evil as tactile substance, as physical reality. “All is grace,” intones Laydu in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, a cinematic touchstone for Dumont; in L’humanité, the limitless possibility of salvation is countered by the limitless proliferation of evil. A recklessly driven truck, the casual, “innocent” cruelty of a group of revellers at a restaurant, a scuffle in a parking lot, the rape and murder of a young girl whether inconsequential or fatal, all testify to a motiveless malignity embedded in the very weave of the world, vicious ruptures integrated into the placid whole. When Pharaon visits the site of the murder, its warm, supremely indifferent beauty unmarred by the violation performed upon it, he runs away screaming, the roar of a passing train swallowing his anguish. If God’s hand is forever manifest in the world, that world eternally bears the traces of the horrors He permits.

Yet Dumont is not interested in speculating on the will of an incorporeal deity, or rather the idea of same. His concern is evoked in his title. Pharaon, Domino, Joseph—it is these samples of humanity, fleshy puppets whose strings have been cut, who obliquely point out the possibilities for transcending the conditions of their existence. If Pharaon embodies radical sensitivity, radical empathy, the agonizing extremes of pain and love he feels are only the keener pangs of a common burden. The animalistic couplings of Domino and Joseph, frequent, explicit and dispassionate, are moving by their very lack of emotion; there’s a desperation, a hunger beyond simple lust (or simple love). “In the sexuality of man and woman there is something profoundly tragic,” says Dumont. “When one makes love, there is pleasure in this sexual release, but one makes the same face as when one is in pain. Someone who enjoys this release is also someone who suffers.” Or someone who inflicts suffering. It is no coincidence that Pharaon witnesses Domino and Joseph having sex soon after discovering the girl’s body. In the inescapable reflexivity of L’humanité, the act of love is analogous with the act of violation; the physicality which allows for a moment of transport is the very thing which weighs inexorably down. When Domino spitefully offers her body to Pharaon who refuses, Dumont crystallizes his vision in a mirror of the film’s opening: Domino’s vagina in close-up, her face out of frame, her stomach contracting with sobs.

At once eloquent and vulgar, this shot is Dumont’s aesthetic at its keenest, at the chill but bracing peaks of clarity. The almost scientific detachment of Dumont’s camera, the pointed deliberation with which he isolates and probes his specimens, is knowingly in the service of something which defies categorization. Built upon a relentless pattern of contradictions—Pharaon’s boundless empathy which renders him incapable of helping anyone, the flesh which liberates and entraps, the world which consoles and tortures— L’humanité is not merely the sum of its negations. The mystery persists beyond the boundaries of the investigation; explanations wither in the cold light of recognition, the whispered hints of a truth we all know yet cannot express. “The world is sacred because it gives an inkling of a meaning that escapes us,” says Sartre, “and man, an enigma that requires a solution, is himself sacred in a sacred world.” In the strange gestures, the unknowable selves, the base, unwieldy bodies of these cruelly animated natures, Dumont etches the cryptic rites of a secret ceremony, a silent protest against the intolerable weight of being. When Pharaon is finally confronted with the girl’s murderer—a solution which provides no answers—he responds by placing a long, full kiss upon the killer’s lips. In the irreconcilable duality of Dumont’s blighted and beautiful world, this gesture carries the force of a sacrament: ultimate acceptance and ultimate rejection, a damned benediction upon a brute humanity cursed with the burden of grace.