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By Michael Sicinski
P’tit Quinquin, the four-part miniseries that Bruno Dumont made for the ARTE network, had its world premiere earlier this year at Cannes as a 200-minute theatrical feature before screening to a record audience on French television in September. (It screened as a special presentation in the Fortnight, sort of a P’tit Quinquinzaine, I suppose.) Quinquin seems to be the latest in an often exciting recent trend of ineluctably cinematic auteurs turning to short-form television, and its far more reliable funding stream, to realize projects that fall very much in line with the artists’ primary bodies of work. To name only the most obvious: Olivier Assayas (Carlos, 2010), Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce, 2011), Kurosawa Kiyoshi (Penance, 2012), Jane Campion (Top of the Lake, 2013), and, depending on your point of view, Steven Soderbergh (The Knick).
Yet despite its origins, P’tit Quinquin clearly functions as a long Dumont film. In certain respects it returns to many of the director’s most familiar visual and thematic tropes following the highly successful departure of his previous film (and rare star vehicle) Camille Claudel 1915 (2013). That film played quite shrewdly with both above-average production values and the somewhat glammed-down image of Juliette Binoche, often backing her fiery performance into a kind of demonstrative corner. Binoche’s clarity of vision, pitted against the mentally disturbed or cognitively impaired non-actors surrounding her, at times became subject to Dumont’s high-minded stuntsmanship, a gender studies rendition of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! At the same time, Camille Claudel 1915 is certainly sensitive and liberal-minded. It rattles the cage as a gesture toward its own seriousness, only to retreat into conclusions regarding women and madness that were fully articulated long ago.
With his new film, Dumont is back on solid ground, tilling it rather doggedly at that. One of the surprises of this year’s Cannes was that the frequently divisive Dumont had delivered a near-consensus critical darling. There were explanations for this: P’tit Quinquin was touted as Dumont’s first comedy, and there’s no doubt that over the course of the first two episodes especially, one can see the series lurching in odd directions in pursuit of unexpected black humour. Whether or not something is funny has historically proven to be one of the most obdurate questions of taste, irksome in its apparent resistance to analysis. Of course, one can rather clearly demarcate the moments and especially the patterns whereby Dumont is attempting to employ comedy as a structural element, to disrupt the type of horrific seriousness that has so often characterized his previous films in both theme and representational style.
It’s an open question: Is Dumont trying to “lighten up?” Well, there are plenty of comedic moments in Dumont’s earlier films. Many unsympathetic critics felt sure they were laughing at Dumont when they saw a cop float in midair or a couple flailing in ecstasy in a public swimming pool, but it seems that the man’s carnal sense of the absurd has been there all along. Still, P’tit Quinquin is a project that perhaps connects more broadly than some of the auteur’s other works for another reason. While, yes, this “TV series” is a Dumont film through and through, it is also one of his most thematically open efforts. While there is a narrative mystery that remains to be solved in P’tit Quinquin, Dumont has used the patient, expansive plotting and characterization possibilities of TV (or at least the three-hour-plus running time, broken into four discrete episodes) to make the thematic content of the film/show fairly evident. This is a work that gradually, but quite definitively, lets the audience know what it is “about.”
In its simplest terms, P’tit Quinquin is a policier, a detective series that is about a pair of cops and a rural community dealing with a serial killer. And so, true to form, we begin with a pair of crimes that appear both random and bizarre but are revealed, in time, to have been the result of secret connections between the victims. This concession to genre format is but one of several ways in which P’tit Quinquin operates as Dumont’s more accessible crypto-sequel (if not remake) of his masterwork L’humanité (1999). Where that film treated murder and criminality as a kind of viral contagion, if not simply the existential condition of a filthy, fallen world, P’tit Quinquin quite obviously has a “killer.”
And yet, L’humanité ended with a man in handcuffs, and Quinquin ends [SPOILER ALERT] with the murderer still at large. (All aboard for a rumoured sequel.) We never learn for sure if Joseph the brusque, macho truck driver is really the child killer in L’humanité, but by the film’s conclusion, downcast detective Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotté) sits in cuffs as a Christ-like perp, taking the rap for the human condition. In stark contrast, in P’tit Quinquin Dumont shows us a world bigoted and illiberal enough that most anyone would harbour sentiments similar to those that prompted the murderer to kill. However, the world of Quinquin, in the rural zone around Bailleul and Lille (the land of Dumont’s youth), is just so rotten as to cleave to traditional notions of law and order, ones that L’humanité had rejected in favour of larger spiritual concerns. That is, even if it takes a village to kill an Arab, it’s still every man for himself.
The killings, to be clear, all involve humans stuffed into dead cows. The first is discovered in a recessed concrete drainage cistern, a place too steep for a cow to enter. Autopsy results find that the first victim is the wife of the local dairy farmer, Lebeau. The coroner on the scene, along with the two chief detectives, Carpentier (Philippe Jore) and Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), initially think the woman was carved up and shoved up the cow’s ass. Then they change their theory, deciding she was stuffed in through the throat. But by the time of the second victim, the woman’s Arab lover Mr. Bhiri, it has been concluded that the bovine “accomplices” have not been selected at random. They have mad cow disease, and the killer chopped his victims up and fed them to the deranged ruminants, strict herbivores, of course, under ordinary circumstances.
In time, as cow-stuffed murders pile up, we find that Victim 1 (the farmer’s wife) was having an affair with Victim 2 (a Muslim immigrant). In the course of this discovery, several other things occur in P’tit Quinquin. Dumont allows us to get a feel for the village and its sullen, time-weathered inhabitants, but mostly our identification is split between two groups. On the one hand, we have Quinquin and his roving band of mischievous truants, including two male buddies Kevin (Julien Bodard) and Jordan (Corentin Carpentier), both loyal but slow on the uptake, and his girl neighbour/love interest Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron). Dumont stages their antics in classic “Our Gang”/Stand by Me (1986) manner, their mobility restricted to the fringes of the adult world but always much shrewder than that world’s adult inhabitants. On the other, the cops: twitchy, irritable Van der Weyden and the soft-spoken, long-suffering Carpentier (who has a habit of driving away from every location by making an unnecessary 360° curlicue in his Citroën, like a dog turning circles before lying down). Several of the moments of ostensible comedy come from the direct confrontations of these two incompatible cohorts, with Van der Weyden and Quinquin locking horns with a particular ’80s/’90s, fist-shaking, nose-thumbing irascibility. They’re Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson separated by a body count.
Once he has firmly established these seemingly well-meaning antipodean posses as the anchorage points for P’tit Quinquin, around the end of episode two and the beginning of episode three, Dumont lowers the boom. They are all truculent racists, the unthinking reflexiveness of their anti-Arab bigotry making it no less repugnant. We see Van der Weyden go to a construction site where Bhiri worked, trying to find out more about the man. He finds that nearly all the workers are Arab or African Muslim immigrants, and he shouts at them about their inability to speak French in France. Even the more even-tempered Carpentier makes a disparaging remark of this sort. But Van der Weyden is particularly disdainful towards the Muslims, and later on, when Bhiri’s adolescent son Mohammad (Baptiste Anquez) is holding off the cops in a suicide siege, Van der Weyden remarks that this kind of act is typical of Arab psychology.
Granted, Dumont is familiar enough with TV genre patterns to recognize that cop shows and policiers employ racist cops as a matter of course, both to underline the corruption of the system of law enforcement and to add a dash of “realism” to a milieu that is generally dominated by masculine bravado—part and parcel of which is a misguided notion that the use of racial stereotypes reflect a sort of “straight shooting” or unvarnished truth borne from real-world experience, instead of just exposing the filter through which that experience was processed all along. It’s considerably more shocking when Quinquin and his boys see Mohammad and his friend (Yacine Kellal) chatting up some local girls (Camille and Céline Cazier) in town and, à propos of nothing, decide to charge after them. “Those dirty Arabs can’t go after our girls,” Quinquin declares, and suddenly he and his pals morph into a pint-sized version of Alex de Large and his droogs. (Eve, who was with the boys, simply walks away.) Mohammad and his Arab friend escape, but they are caught later on by the gang. Part of what’s so shocking about this is that Dumont has played his cards so skillfully in order to craft this xenophobic scenario. Up to the point when Quinquin spies Mohammad, he is depicted as an affable lunkhead, liable to get in trouble but essentially harmless. (His shyness around Eve is adorable.) He is as close to a point of identification as we get in P’tit Quinquin, formally speaking (as if the title weren’t already driving us in that direction).
But by the time we have reached the final episode, and the fourth murder, there is no hope for identification, and certainly no hope for resolution, much less justice. The last to die is Eve’s older sister Aurélie (Lisa Hartmann), who over the course of the series becomes a pivotal figure, even as she remains an enigma. At Mme Lebeau’s funeral, fiasco that it is (with the presiding clergy wearing idiot grins throughout and barely able to conduct themselves with the most basic decorum—random, pseudo-Twin Peaks humour that is eventually recoded as contempt for the deceased), Aurélie gets up and quite awkwardly sings an impassioned love song. It doesn’t fit, but its sincerity is welcome in context.
Later on we find that she has been rehearsing this English-language song, “Cause I Knew,” for a local talent competition. The prize? Performing in Paris, far away from the provincial hellhole of her birth. Dumont gives Aurélie/Hartmann a showstopper of a number. In one of the most powerful shots of the entire film, we see her singing on stage, eyes closed, holding the mic, in left profile. In the background, the entire expanse of the village rolls out beneath her. Her creativity towers above the cows and the shit, the violence, and the bigotry.
Eve and Quinquin watch Aurélie in silent awe. But this awareness doesn’t last. Next time we see Aurélie, she’s at the bus stop hanging out with Mohammad, who she likes. The boys, led by Quinquin, chase Mohammad off with an anti-Arab epithet, and then mock Aurélie by imitating her falsetto vocals. By the end of P’tit Quinquin, both Mohammad and Aurélie will be dead, he for refusing to accept the murder of his father with appropriate diffidence, she because she dared to be friends, and maybe more, with a Muslim boy.
So in the end, Dumont cannot be any clearer about the motives of the murderer. He shares the rampant bigotry of the village, but is simply more fanatical about it. The coupling of white and brown, Christian and Muslim, represents an abomination, something unclean, not kosher. So those responsible are reduced to bloody fodder for sick farm animals, their bodies so mutilated that detectives can’t tell whether the victims were shat out by the cows or stuffed up their asses to begin with. These murders are the ultimate culinary perversion, twisted meat-in-meat that reverses the food chain and sullies all concerned. In this regard, it is hardly inconsequential that Bhiri worked nights at a slaughterhouse, and that his friend informs Carpentier and Van der Weyden that the two of them were the only abattoir workers who slaughtered the animals in accordance with halal requirements. There’s an old song, “Sixteen Tons,” that says, “a poor man’s made out of muscle and blood.” The people of P’tit Quinquin certainly fit that description, even if many of them look a bit more like desiccated jerky. But above all, they are meat, and someone has taken it upon himself to “cook” for the entire community, to embody their xenophobic values with a rancid desecration of bodies that stepped out of line. But who is committing the slaughter? Will this mystery be solved?
In this regard it is once again useful to consider P’tit Quinquin as a kind of reconsideration, if not a remake, of L’humanité. It is possible to think of Van der Weyden as an older, disillusioned version of Pharaon de Winter. The younger detective was a wide-eyed naïf given to slow, deliberate movements; he also had a strange habit of trying to smell the guilt on those he brought into the station, almost as if he were trying to take it on himself. Rogier Van der Weyden, on the other hand, is a goggle-eyed bundle of tics, wobbling nervously when he walks and seeming on the verge of exploding from a barely contained restlessness. He is like a combination of Columbo and Joe Cocker, bobbing and weaving like a fighter who has taken too many blows to the head.
It must also be observed, of course, that Dumont named both detectives after painters. Pharaon de Winter was a late 19th century neo-Baroque realist, partial to portraits and religious themes. Figures emerge from the dark in Pharaon’s extant works. This echoes the temperament of the detective in L’humanité, whom the film described as the painter’s grandson. There was a peace that permeated Pharaon, even in the face of horror. (This is part of what made L’humanité such a bizarre film, and such a beautiful one.) In the end, it is both surprising and natural that he would “solve” the case by taking on humanity’s collective guilt.
By contrast, Rogier Van der Weyden was an early Flemish painter, a contemporary of Jan Van Eyck and Robert Campin. Working mostly in altarpieces and religious oil paintings, Van der Weyden tended to employ a flattened, pre-Renaissance organization of space and thick, weighty outlines to demarcate bodies and objects. In other words, these paintings are masterworks of a flawed, pre-analytic vision, one that compensates for imprecision with raw force. We can assume that Det. Van der Weyden will use the same limited perspective in solving the Cow Killer case. The clues will eventually point to someone, even though virtually everyone in the community he serves does share in the murderer’s guilt, since they accept the racism it represents as a basic template for organizing their world. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the detective, his assistant Carpentier, and the whole countryside will continue looking for the killer. Even as he acts from a dark place in their id, they will not recognize him. He must be excised, like flesh from bone.