The first thing I need to explain about Bruno Dumont’s Humanité shouldn’t have to be said at all. It’s that the film is not a whodunit. Granted, the opening sequence reveals that a crime has been committed–a particularly revolting crime, a worst-case scenario. What’s more, the film’s central character is a police lieutenant, working in the dowdy Flanders town where the outrage occurred. But viewers who expect to see a mystery solved–a group that seems to include quite a few film critics–are simply not paying attention.
The victim in the story–an 11-year-old girl, raped and murdered and left in a field for the ants to eat–is found on a Friday. The cop goes home and doesn’t set to work till Monday morning. Apparently, Dumont thinks it’s more important for you to discover how the cop spends his weekend–discover it in detail, over perhaps half an hour of screen time–than to puzzle over clues. And even when the sleuthing starts, Dumont refuses to ratchet up the intrigue or suspense. That’s because the detective, who is one of the oddest figures ever to hold that job description, might have committed the crime. For all we know–perhaps for all he knows–he’s investigating himself.
He carries out this work as if in slow motion–staring at parcels of landscape or the collars of shirts, mumbling or drawling the few words he gets out amid his silences, walking as if he’d been given a full-body shot of novocaine–and never once turns up a piece of evidence throughout the 148 minutes of the film. And yet much of the conversation generated by Humanité hinges on a small, deliberately discordant note at the film’s end, a detail that some viewers treat as a clue, as if it could settle the question of guilt and innocence. This is like using the Bible as a cookbook, just because it mentions a piece of fruit.
The whole point of this strange, compelling, deeply impressive film is to avoid dividing humanity into two convenient categories, the innocent and the guilty. Standing outside his little house on that first afternoon, leaning against a wall of sun-drenched brick, the cop asks the woman who is his neighbor and confidante, “How can people do such things?” Given the cop’s not-quite-focused eyes and halting speech, it’s hard to characterize his delivery of the line. Is this bafflement, disgust, anger, remorse? He seems to be trying to choke down the words and spit them out simultaneously–and the reason, I think, is that he does not exclude himself from the category of “people.” What they can do, he can do.
Or consider the exchange that takes place a while later, in the cop’s kitchen, where his mother is fixing him something to eat. “What a terrible thing,” she says, to let him know the crime has been mentioned on TV. His reply: “Ça, c’est mon travail.“ The comment might be translated as “That’s what I deal with,” but also as “That’s my handiwork.” For the cop, and for Dumont, neither meaning can be ignored.
And now, having plunged so far into the unnecessary, I will explain something else that shouldn’t need saying: Humanité is not a work of realism.
It’s physical, certainly. As Dumont showed in his first feature, Life of Jesus, he likes floods of light, a wide-screen format and long takes that dwell on a single action. With these as his tools, he induces you to fall into the picture, so that you’re all but surrounded with the things that most interest him: clumps of dirt, machinery, farm fields, flowers, well-worn furniture and the walls of cramped row houses, cafe tables, kitchen tables, discount-store clothing, human bodies engaged in quick-stroke sex. At every moment, Dumont emphasizes the materiality of what you’re seeing. But reality? That would have to emerge through a network of normal social interaction, which is precisely what the film suppresses.