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Suffer the child inside
A region 2 DVD review of L'HUMANITÉ by Slarek
 

In massive wide shot, a man jogs across the horizon line, so small you barely register his presence at first, at least on a non-cinema sized screen, and yet his struggled breathing is loud enough to suggest we are running alongside him and he is panting in our ear. A few moments later he collapses wide-eyed in the mud. Is he dead? It appears not. Returning to his car to answer a radio call, he responds by telling whoever summoned him that he is on his way, then sits and looks mournfully at the landscape for some time before heading off. By now we have been introduced to what is likely our main character and his unexplained but obvious weariness with his life and work, the nature of which has yet to be defined. We don't have to wait long to find out. Our man is police superintendent Pharaon De Winter and he has just been called to the location of a murder of a young girl. Despite the unpleasant nature of the crime, it is not of prime importance here. This is not about the murder or the killer or even the investigation, it's about Pharaon De Winter, and we will be spending a lot of time in his company. Just occasionally we will get inside his head.

The next sequence begins in as jarring a manner as you'll see all year, as we are introduced to the crime scene through a medium close-up of the insect-dotted spread legs and genitals of the victim, and this is where the audience opinion will start to divide. Moments later we are made aware that we have been looking at the body of an 11-year-old schoolgirl who has been brutally raped and killed. De Winter is supremely uncomfortable with the whole situation. He's not the only one, but that's clearly the idea. When his neighbour remarks on hearing about the murder that "life is really sick," the film wants us to understand what that means from Pharaon's first-hand experience rather than via the neighbour's (and the usual filmgoer's) watered-down view of the event.

Right from the start Pharaon is an enigmatic curiosity. A policeman of some rank and authority, he nonetheless never seems comfortable at his workplace, spending much of his time looking around him wide-eyed like a lost child. Despite being in he mid-to-late thirties, he lives with his mother and spends his spare time loitering on his doorstep, observing passers by with a mixture of longing and curiosity. He has a schoolboy crush on the girl next door, Domino, whom he walks in on early in the narrative while she is in the throes of energetic sex with her boyfriend Joseph. Rather that turn and walk out in embarrassment, he stands in the doorway and watches. Domino sees him and later reprimands him, but a short while later apologises for doing so, momentarily thrilling Pharaon, who reacts like a shy, virginal high-school kid who has just landed his first date. Domino and Joseph regularly invite Pharaon to join them for dinner or on trips, and he endures Joseph's occasional piss-taking in the hope of just a look or a smile from Domino. Domino clearly likes him a lot, but just how much is uncertain.

The film spends its first 40 minutes on this three-way relationship and effectively pushes the murder investigation so far into the background that it almost vanishes from the story. By the time it re-emerges we have been supplied, albeit through an almost throwaway line, with a possible reason for why Pharaon is how he is. Although this is never explored or expanded on, it changes the way you read everything he does from that point on, adding a new layer of meaning to his attitude to the investigation and to those around him. Pharaon sees human behaviour as largely animalistic and driven essentially by base desires and instincts, and has seemingly little understanding of the complexity of emotions that drive the actions he observes. Thus when he catches Domino and Joseph having sex, he watches on not out a voyeuristic curiosity or pleasure, but with a look of dismay laced with child-like confusion, that of a boy who has just walked in on his parents in full flow and cannot comprehend what he is seeing. Thus when Domino later exposes herself to him in a starkly direct come-on, he reacts by running away. Like a pubescent teenager, he desires the idea of the woman, but is frightened off by the animal act of copulation. It is suggested that he makes little distinction between the rape perpetrated on the murdered girl and the sexual act he witnesses Domino involved in, a connection emphasised by an almost identically framed (and equally explicit) shot of Domino's spread legs following his rapid departure, something that is further clarified by the film's end.

If Pharaon seems to shy away from physical contact in his private life, it nonetheless proves to be a curiously crucial aspect of his police work. His interrogation method seems to involve the smelling, caressing and embracing of his suspects, a technique that has appeared before both in literature (FBI agent Will Graham in Thomas Harris's Red Dragon) and in film (Detective Ron Craven in Edge of Darkness), but here acts almost as a funnel for the emotional and physical contact that Pharaon keeps otherwise buried. It is only in his professional role that he makes any sort of physical connection with Domino – when she and her fellow strikers besiege the town hall and demand to see the mayor, he casually pushes her aside in order to stand off against the strike leader, his facial expression suggesting both the more aggressive policeman he once was and a previously unimaginable capacity for violence. It is this element of his personality that he is unable to summon in his private life, specifically to confront a group of noisy restaurant customers who attempt to humiliate Domino, a task that falls instead to the more openly masculine Joseph.

Increasingly Pharaon's safety valve begins to falter and at times he almost seems to shut down on the spot, his eyes closing and his empathic powers reaching out to touch anyone in close proximity, who react in different ways, from backing off to hugging him. His true state of mind in these moments remains ambiguous, but occasionally his reactions offer multiple readings, most notably when he returns to the scene of the crime and runs screaming across the nearby field, a cry of despair for brutality of the act, of frustration at the lack of progress on the case, and of anguish at his own memories. But it is also a partial re-enactment of the victim's possible last actions, one that helps to suggest a new line of investigation. This transports him briefly and unexpectedly to England, a trip whose most affecting moment comes when he watches, from the upper floor of a tower block, a man being violently assaulted in the street. Without doubt his strangest episode of introspection occurs on his allotment towards the end of the film, when he becomes lost in thought and appears to float a good foot above the ground, briefly moving the character and the film into the realms of the metaphysical and the purely symbolic.

Of course none of this counts for squat if you do not connect with director Bruno Dumont's approach to his subject matter, and that is where the divisions have really occurred. The sedate pacing and emphasis on the stillness between conversation and action are not going to work for everyone. But even more problematic for some is the casting of non-professionals in the lead roles, whose performances will be read as emotionally vacant or thoughtfully understated, depending on your viewpoint. Certainly the 1999 Cannes Jury headed by David Cronenberg believed the latter, awarding not only the Jury Prize to Dumont, but the Best Actor and Actress gongs to Emmanuel Schotté and (in a tied award with Émilie Dequenne for the Dardenne Brothers' Rosetta) Séverine Caneele as Pharaon and Domino respectively, prompting very vocal jeers from the festival audience and the usual sneering comments from the American trade press. This same division was evident when we screened the film for a cinema audience a few years back, prompting a very negative reaction from some but enthusiastic praise from others. Just recently I read an interesting reaction from a Japanese viewer on IMDB, who summed up his contradictory feelings by stating that although he hated the film, he also admired it.

Personally I'm with Big Dave and the Cannes jury. I can see why people would dislike the film or, to a degree, why some would be offended (though frankly if it's the explicit sex that bothers you then you need to be offended) or even bored by it. But every viewing I have had has kept me completely enthralled. Dumont's pacing, attention to small detail and use of the scope frame, particularly to isolate characters within urban or rural landscapes or to suggest tentative connections between them, is striking throughout, and I find the performances of the two leads to be both believable and refreshing in their honesty, and, in Caneele's case, its unflinching boldness. Individual moments may seem calculated to court controversy, but all of them have a clear purpose within the film's structure and fully justify their presence, to the degree that it simply would not be as effective without them. For some, L'Humanité will not prove an easy or even involving experience, but for those willing to go where Dumont is taking them, it is a most worthwhile and memorable one.

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a splendid transfer that showcases Yves Cape's precise and telling scope compositions beautifully. Contrast, sharpness and colour are all first rate, black levels are on the nose and digital noise is virtually non-existent.

The sound is Dolby 2.0 stereo only, but is still a quality transfer, especially in the reproduction of location atmospherics such as wind and surf, which are key components of certain scenes and sound as good here as they did in the cinema.

extra features

Not a lot here. The Production Notes nicely outline the the director's attitude to French cinema and this film in particular, as well as the controversy surround its multiple Cannes win.

The Bruno Dumont Filmography provides a very brief overview of the director's career to date.

summary

It's always difficult to recommend a film that you know a fair proportion of potential viewers are going to really take a dislike to, but I do so nonetheless. For me L'Humanité is a bold and intelligent experiment in quiet but detailed character study that is at its most keenly observational not through its dialogue, but in the quietest moments that lie between. The DVD has been a while coming, but has proved worth the wait for the fine transfer, though it does lose out a little on the extra features, which should take you about two minutes to trawl through. Otherwise a very welcome release of a film that will continue to split opinion, and long may it do so.

L'Humanité

France 1999
143 mins
director
Bruno Dumont
starring .
Emmanuel Schotté
Séverine Caneele
Philippe Tullier
Ghislain Ghesquère

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Production Notes
Director filmography
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
22 May 2006
review posted
21 May 2006

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