It’s the first one in the film – what is often dismissively labelled an establishing shot, as though all that it does is to set the stage for something else like an empty contextual vessel. But shots like these in P’tit Quinquin (2014), and in many of Bruno Dumont’s films of the past decade and beyond, do so much more than that.
A cluster of houses sits atop a green hillock, surrounded by trees and fields. A row of hay bales is neatly arranged in the lower right corner of the frame. To the upper left part of the frame, behind the hill, a thin strip of deep blue sea is visible. And above, occupying the entire upper half of the frame, a boundless blue sky.
The next shot pulls closer to its subject, but squeezes both less and more detail into its frame. The back of a child’s head, a hearing aid visible behind his left earlobe. The third shot shows the boy’s slight frame from the front, but it’s not until the fifth one that he strides forwards towards the camera, its frame eventually encompassing his face which breaks slightly into a lopsided grin.
Among other things, Bruno Dumont’s films are about faces and landscapes. He uses these to talk about other things, but in ways that other filmmakers don’t he explores how humans and their surroundings are bound to one another. With the possible exception of Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) and Twentynine Palms (2003) the faces (and bodies) featured in Dumont’s films are an intimate part of their landscapes, although in the case of these two exceptions, not belonging is part of the point.
Political critique is presumed to be a common thread among the directors who are widely taken to comprise the realist, brutalist or whatever other labels have been assigned to a diverse array of filmmakers to have come out of Francophone Europe in the past couple of decades. Central to discussions of Claire Denis, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Erik Zonka, Bruno Dumont or Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne is the assumption that they are all committed to depictions of extreme situations or lifestyles, and that through this focus lies a deeper critique of the problems of contemporary France and/or Belgium, and more widely Europe. Among these innovative filmmakers, Bruno Dumont stands alone for his abiding interest in the pastoral, a word that is commonly taken to involve an idealisation of rural life and livelihood. But Dumont brings something different to this context, hidden behind a reverence for rural folk – a deeper notion that something is wrong, and that it is not necessarily in corrupting urban environments that its source can be found, but rather in the countryside – the hinterland.
Much has been made of P’tit Quinquin as Dumont’s most approachable film. It’s certainly his funniest. The exploits and foibles of the eponymous character’s band of youthful comrades speak more to The Little Rascals than to the nihilistic, emotionally challenged youth of Dumont’s earlier films. But there are periodic intimations that Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) could be just a slightly younger version of La vie de Jésus’ (The Life of Jesus, 1997) Freddy (David Douche), for example, who in a terrifying explosion of rage and racist violence, stomps to death the son of an Algerian immigrant near the end of that film.
Similarly amusing, Quinquin’s sparring partner, Commandant Van Der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), is a mumbling semi-incompetent detective in the mold of a Jacques Tati character, but he arouses our sympathy when we see that everyone else is laughing at him behind his back. “We’re in the heart of evil, Carpentier,” Van Der Weyden confides to his lieutenant (Philippe Jore) in a more lucid moment. The latter responds with an oblique literary reference: “It’s the human beast, Commandant.” P’tit Quinquin contains its fair share of humour, but this is a vehicle to more serious concerns. Many in Dumont’s lineage of male protagonists bear more than a passing resemblance to the titular character of Zola’s 1890 novel, La Bête humaine (The Human Beast), a passionate, yet repressed man who occasionally erupts in shocking displays of violence, less an animal than a volcano.
Freddy of La vie de Jésus is directionless and emotionless – it’s difficult to think of him as a cruel person before the aforementioned murder sequence, but the banality of his actions indicates that they arise from a boredom and disaffection that Dumont suggests is widespread.
The subject of L’Humanité (Humanity, 1999) is a murder, which the film’s protagonist, the police detective Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), appears to be investigating, until it turns out that the film has been investigating de Winter, potentially the actual guilty party – if not of the murder, of some other, perhaps similar, perhaps distinct moral violation.
In Flandres (Flanders, 2006), the main protagonist is a slightly beefier, overgrown version of Freddy named Demester (Samuel Boidin), who is drafted to fight against an unknown enemy in an unnamed Arab country in an uncertain time period. Like Freddy and possibly de Winter, Demester is expressionless and passionless. Loveless in earlier scenes with his girlfriend, who leaves him for another man, he appears to find some passion in the hate that drives himself and his comrades to kill and rape the nameless inhabitants of the desert country where they’re sent to fight.
Hors Satan (Outside Satan, 2011) is Dumont’s most obscure film to date, representing a peak in his depictions of extreme subjects. Transcending the frequently wordless narratives of rural northwestern France from the first part of his oeuvre, Satan follows an interloper (David Dewaele) with a face as rugged as the country trails that he traverses between an abandoned field where he sleeps and the village and surrounding forest where he alternately wreaks havoc or works miracles in the manner of a latter-day Christ. The unnamed man demonstrates an uncanny connection to the land around him, whose wild beauty beguiles him, as it seems to be an endless source of earthly distractions, an unlimited wellspring of sins to undo and make right again.
A hallmark of narrative cinema, the shot-reverse shot composition is present in all of Bruno Dumont’s films. But beginning in La vie de Jésus, and continuing through P’tit Quinquin, Dumont uses the same technique to increasingly more radical effect by opposing his human subjects and their natural surroundings. An actor in a Dumont film looks at the camera and instead of the following shot revealing the face opposite his gaze, as often as not, we’re privileged with a view of the (seemingly) placid countryside.
More than anything else this type of vision encapsulates Dumont’s heroes and anti-heroes. Whether dull or dimwitted, violent, sexist, or racist, sensitive seers or heartless thugs, Dumont’s characters are influenced by and aware of their surroundings. They are not always masters of their own actions and reflexes, but their own perspective (transmitted to the viewer by the camera’s gaze) implies some kind of deeper synchrony with their environment, even if what is produced from this relation is not always in the best interests of either party.
These men (and occasionally women) who stare so reverentially at their surroundings in northern France are frequently subject to fits of violence if they are not already demonstrating signs of interiorised pain and suffering, epilepsy and possession among them. They and those around them seem aware that something is not right; this feeling doesn’t just surge periodically within their bodies and souls but is present in the air they breathe and the land under their feet.
Bruno Dumont is a landscape filmmaker, in the tradition of landscape artists in cinema and other media. His tableaux of countrysides can call to mind Cézanne, Constable, or Turner. Much has been made of Dumont’s similarity to Robert Bresson, a filmmaker with whom he refuses to identify, going so far as to deny having seen the latter’s work while admitting a shared admiration of George Bernanos, whose stories formed the basis for several Bresson films. Whether or not this comparison is accurate or not, it ignores the fact that, unlike Bresson, Dumont is not primarily a filmmaker of gestures. He is a filmmaker of spaces.
While the slow pacing of Dumont’s work can be characterised as spiritual or ascetic, adjectives frequently used to describe Bresson, the political dimension of his commentary on people and the landscapes where they work and live is more similar to works by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or the 1960s-70s collaborations between Jean-Luc Godard, Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Pierre Gorin. It also resonates with the work of Japanese filmmakers Masao Adachi, Mamoru Sasaki, and Masao Matsuda, whose notion of fûkeiron, or “landscape theory”, anticipates Dumont’s similar interest in revealing the hidden dialogue between people and places. In the case of P’tit Quinquin, the film’s more conventional form and language-driven narrative allows these tensions to come to the fore in a way they haven’t for Dumont before.
A young boy is on his summer holiday in Brittany, northwestern France. He bikes around the region’s rural roads, sometimes with his girlfriend and neighbour, the provocatively-named Eve (Lucy Caron), perched on the back wheel, her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. Following a doubly-referential sequence where a helicopter menaces Quinquin, Eve and their friends on a beach and they give chase to find it now flying away from a World War II-era concrete bunker with a dead cow swinging from its underside, the band of youth have their first encounter with the police commandant and his lieutenant, who’ve been summoned to investigate the animal’s death, rendered more alarming by the subsequent discovery that its body bears traces of human blood, the sign of the first in a series of confusing if not brutal murders.
The commandant’s name, Roger Van Der Weyden, makes him a namesake of an Early Netherlandish painter, Rogier Van Der Weyden (1400-64), whose work is recognised for its striking naturalism, primarily expressed through portraits. Van Der Weyden’s triptych of the Crucifixion also demonstrates the artist’s grasp of the landscape form. Portrayed in a slightly two-dimensional form characteristic of the period, his Crucifixion places the act squarely within, instead of in stark contrast to, its background, a series of green rolling hills that would look as much at home in northwestern Europe as in Biblical Golgotha.
Our Van Der Weyden is no painter, landscape or otherwise, but he is a keen observer of his surroundings. While befuddled by the rash of murders plaguing his town, he senses that something more than a man-eating mad cow is amiss. When his principal suspect is murdered, he struggles to find the culprit, eventually settling on that man’s brother, who is also young Quinquin’s father (Philippe Peuvion). The rotten roots of a family tree would appear to provide a potential impetus for the murder of a farmer, his lover, wife and his wife’s lover, but this conclusion is thrown into a tailspin towards the end of the film, when Quinquin’s neighbour, the older sister of young Eve, who has designs on a singing career, is devoured by her family’s pigs.
The bizarreness of this final crime returns the Commandant’s focus and our own to the land and to nature itself. Heading across the road to Quinquin’s house, Van Der Weyden first confronts Quinquin’s uncle Dany (Jason Cirot), who suffers from an unclear mental illness. Since Dany is also a brother of one of the earlier victims, he has previously been the subject of an unsuccessful interrogation. The Inspector’s efforts yield similar results this time, but when Quinquin’s father arrives, he turns philosophical. Dropping to one knee in the yard, Van Der Weyden scours the ground with his fingertips. “The earth smells good,” he utters. “But it’s sour here.” He sniffs the matter on his fingertips, before standing and leaving: he has no proof, but can tell that something is rotten and that it might be more profound than a single man’s vengeance.
Inspector Van Der Weyden is alternately depicted as a bumbling idiot or a mysterious seer (his Lieutenant at one point confides in another colleague that his boss’s nickname is “The Fog”). The character of Quinquin ranges from precocious to vicious. Quinquin is most mature when around his neighbour and girlfriend, Eve. He takes her in his arms to reassure her, when he’s not dutifully ferrying her around on the back of his bike. But Quinquin suffers a major regression when confronted with figures of authority or those who are less familiar to him. These include both Van Der Weyden, with whom he has several run-ins, and the church sexton, whom he torments on a bumper-car ride with his pals. However, his most profound rage is reserved for the two new African and Arab residents of his seaside town.
Quinquin and his friends first manifest their xenophobia when surprising a couple of picnicking Dutch tourists with fireworks, but this childish prank is quickly surpassed when they spot young Mohamed Bhiri (Baptiste Anquez) and his friend (Yacine Kellal) chatting up three local girls at the bumper-car ride. “What are those guys doing with our girls?” Quinquin wonders aloud, before confronting the boys who run home after a brief standoff, trailed by Quinquin and his pals.
The beach is the site of the following encounter when Quinquin has come to bathe with Eve on an overcast day. While they swim, Mohamed and his younger friend arrive on the rocks where Quinquin and Eve have left their clothing with a WWII-era grenade that Quinquin has found in his expeditions into one of the area’s abandoned military forts. When the young couple returns from their brief baignade, Quinquin demands that the boys return his grenade, which has gone missing. Mohamed stares him down wordlessly. Eventually, Quinquin and Eve leave, Quinquin manufacturing an excuse to his girlfriend about not wanting to have gotten in a fight in front of her.
The next run-in occurs at the outdoor performance of Eve’s older sister Aurelie (Lisa Hartmann), for whom Mohamed is developing a romantic interest. This time, Quinquin and company chase the two boys into the dunes outside of town, yelling “Dirty Arabs!” They ambush and attempt to beat them up before the much larger Mohamed and his friend elude the local boys, who then pretend to have allowed them to escape: “No point in chasing after them,” muses Quinquin. “We already kicked their asses.”
The next time we see Mohamed, he’s flirting with Aurelie – gently but insistently – as she walks to the bus stop. When they arrive, Mohamed attempts to ask her out that evening, but is interrupted by Aurelie’s school friend Jennifer (Coralie Renzi), who unleashes a stream of racist bile at him. After being called a “dirty negro” and a “monkey”, Mohamed storms away, repeating “Allah akbar”, while Aurelie and Jennifer board their bus. Quinquin only arrives after this sequence, but his presence underlines Mohamed’s wider mistreatment at the hands of the townspeople. There’s a calm banality around the increasingly violent verbal exchange that precedes Mohamed’s departure – the birds continue chirping, the streets are still empty at midday: this could be any day anywhere in France.
Mohamed is the focus of a later sequence, and the momentary subject of Van Der Weyden and Carpentier’s attentions when he holes up in the top floor of his family’s house with a gun, firing on the police team sent to investigate below. Interspersing his earlier “Allah akbar” with “Death to France” and “Death to the French” shouted towards the policemen who have laid siege to his house, Mohamed clearly seems troubled by more than his father’s earlier death (and the discovery of parts of his dismembered body in a cow). Van Der Weyden coolly postulates, “His country, France, he can’t cope with it and he wasn’t accepted, so he went crazy.” At some point during the standoff, Quinquin, Eve, and the others arrive near a police barricade set up at one of the street. “Look at that scum shooting everywhere,” observes Quinquin innocently.
When the shooting stops abruptly, Van Der Weyden assumes the worse and runs inside the house. He emerges with the boy’s limp, dead body in his arms. Quinquin and company looked on wide-eyed, ridiculous in the animal-face make-up they’d applied on the beach, while Van Der Weyden and Carpentier drive away. The kids, who look more like children than they have until this point, wander aimlessly back to the beach where they stare at their ruined sandcastle, destroyed by the rising tide. Eve’s sister, Aurelie, suddenly rushes over the beaches rocks towards them, asking what has happened.
Quinquin: The black guy put a bullet in his head.
Kevin: Yeah, the negro.
The next time we see Aurelie, she’s speaking on the phone to her friend, her eyes filled with tears. As the camera lingers on her walking away, we see her caressing her family’s hogs. In the following sequence, we learn that they have devoured her.
Van Der Weyden is the first to conclude that Eve’s sister, along with the other five recently deceased (each part of a network of love affairs interlocking three married couples) are victims not of a simple murderer, but of a more nefarious force: “the devil.” Having accessed Mohamed’s computer and the contents of the boy’s diary, Van Der Weyden goes so far as to attribute Aurelie’s death to an “exterminator”,
Van Der Weyden: She humiliated him, Carpentier. And he went crazy. He found religion, Islam, all this bullshit.
Carpentier: That’s why she was eaten by pigs?
Van Der Weyden: No. Exterminated. Exterminated, Carpentier. It’s not the same thing. This is hell. <He points downwards, towards the earth beneath his feet.> This is hell.
P’tit Quinquin is as expansive a portrait as Dumont has made of the hidden fears, depravities, and moralities that govern rural life. Combining a darkly comedic detective drama with a youthful coming-of-age narrative, Dumont creates a painterly film in which pastoral landscapes meld with expressive, character-filled faces. Conjoining the blissfully empty spaces and stifling social universe of P’tit Quinquin arguably makes Dumont the inheritor of a colleague of the real life Van Der Weyden, the better known Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), whose work similarly blends people and landscapes.
In The Hay Wain (c.1516), Bosch depicts human existence in three stages. In the left panel, Adam and Eve meet, are tempted by Satan, and eventually cast out of Paradise. In the right one, we see the consequences of their original sin and subsequent human straying from a morally righteous path – a variety of torturous, barbarous and amoral proceedings characteristic of medieval representations of Hell. However, it is the middle panel that articulates a sharper disconnect with previous and later imagery of rural landscapes. While a number of angelic figures look on from the ground and a Christ-like figure watches concernedly from a golden-hued cloud in the sky above, human figures representing different castes and occupations fight over the eponymous wagon of hay, while others in the lower foreground illustrate a variety of sins. In the background, we can see the characteristic rolling hills of the region, and a bluish-hued river stretching out to the horizon. The central object of the painting, however, remains the stack of hay, a yellowish block comprised of perhaps millions of pieces of straw assembled through human labour, that here becomes an object of fear, violence and aggression.
While commonly considered a triptych, The Hay Wain has a fourth panel, visible only when the larger work is closed. It is thus impossible to view both at the same time, but The Pedlar or The Path of Life as it is occasionally called, is a vital dialogic counterpart.
This travelling peddler resembles the characters depicted in many of Dumont’s early films – a potentially innocent outsider or distinctive insider, troubled by temptation, below whom lurks the subterranean bones of a past violation, even as an innocent duck floats languidly on the placid surface of a stream to his right. The entire painting curiously transcends one of the limitations of contemporary cinema as it expands on the impossibilities of its own era, the difficulty of simultaneously depicting a seeing subject and the object of their gaze. Indeed, the closed and opened panels of Bosch’s painting approximate the shot/countershot, human/landscape construction in Dumont’s contemporary films, the peddler either unable or unwilling to see the larger picture, the crowd massed around the hay wagon in the wider triptych formation.
If indeed something depraved is lurking barely beneath the surface in the rolling seaside hills of Boulogne in P’tit Quinquin, as it is in similar landscapes that populate Dumont’s earlier work, then the two characters who most appropriately stand in for Bosch’s peddler are Inspector Van Der Weyden and Quinquin himself. The Commandant is condemned to an eternal awareness of the tragedies surrounding him that range from the resurgent racism of the colonial past to the ingrown animosities of a rural backwater, both of which issue in occasional explosions of horrific violence. Van Der Weyden idealises the rural, the pastoral, rhapsodising of his love for the land, conflating his attraction to a woman with the physical majesty of a proud strong show horse. But he is simultaneously impaired, not solely by his physical tics and the lack of respect he arouses in others, but by his inability to do more than see things for what they are.
The film is anything but sympathetic to P’tit Quinquin, using the origins of his name in a local Breton folk song to depict him as the archetypal inheritor of all of the complexities – the fear, hatred, and close-mindedness – that surround him. In the film’s final moments, Van Der Weyden and Carpentier, powerless without any evidence, walk away from Quinquin’s house, leaving behind them Quinquin’s troubled uncle Dany, a Boo Radley-like figure, one of several likely culprits for the larger part of the murders. The camera reveals Dany gaping in their wake, either in shock at his own crimes or the implausibility of his getting away with them. As it has in the past, in this and other Dumont films, the camera reveals the subject of his gaze, the open gates of the family compound, and the fields of wheat beyond them. But then, in a twist the landscape looks back at us, at the camera, and we see the objects of its own gaze in the final shot: Quinquin with Eve in his arms, staring in the same direction as Dany, at the camera, at us. A grin creeps over his face, similar to the one in the film’s first sequence. Whether Quinquin or Dany’s shared social, mental or physical flaws are being equated here, the point seems to be that it’s the inbred spirit of their environment that’s responsible for these crimes, in which the very beauty of the place itself may be implicated.