THOSE FRENCH. Humanit鼯I> picked up a few awards at Cannes last year, which is a mixed endorsement at best. For every Pulp Fiction (which snagged the top prize in '94), the Gauls annually bestow their blessings on more tedious, difficult fare, like Barton Fink, Underground, and The Mission. Serious and important seem to be the watchwords for such choices; simple narrative clarity scarcely matters. That's the problem with the new film from Bruno Dumont, whose 1997 The Life of Jesus dealt with a similarly bleak, dead-end milieu near the coast of Flanders.
directed by Bruno Dumont
with Emmanuel Schott鬠S鶥rine Caneele, and Philippe Tullier
runs August 4-17 at Grand Illusion
In the muddy furrows of a field, within sight of the sea, a mild-mannered cop stumbles onto a gruesome crime scene. An 11-year-old girl has been raped and murdered, her bare bleeding genitalia left uncovered to the camera's gaze. Police superintendent Pharaon (Emmanuel Schott驠is understandably horrified. "How could someone do that?" he wonders. It's his job to find out, of course, but as the investigation unfolds, he and his colleagues appear utterly unequipped for the task. Running over two hours long, Humanit鼯I> often feels like marathon outtake reel from Cops: At Home. Instead of crime solving, we're treated to endless slice-of-life scenes from Pharaon's gratingly dull existence.
This lonely bachelor has a crush on his neighbor Domino (S鶥rine Caneele), whose coarse sexual devotion is reserved for her loutish bus driver boyfriend (Philippe Tullier). Humanit鼯I> is in this respect a love triangle, a study in tortured, latent feelings struggling for expression. Yet sex underlies everything in Humanit鼯I>, as Dumont explicitly stages clumsy and believable scenes of Domino and her beau rutting like animals. "Are we any better?" he implicitly asks.
That lurking sense of carnality and violence contrasts with the benign, blank face of our hero. (Dumont uses nonprofessional actors who simply behave, not perform, in the tradition of Bresson.) Indeed, dweebish Pharaon boasts all the charisma of Rain Man. "You're too bloody stupid to be a cop," he's told, but Dumont gradually makes clear that he's more of a holy fool. This policeman is looking for the guilty party, but punishment isn't his exact agenda. In its willfully enigmatic final scenes, Humanit鼯I> suggests a higher purpose to this bewildered cop's assignment. It also leaves open the question of whether he himself apprehends his motives and mission. Without quite living up to its glacial tone of profundity, the film powerfully demonstrates how, from this humble earth, a kind of grace may rise.