Columbo This Isn’t

Columbo This Isn’t

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.

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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.

Humanité includes all the infrastructure you’d need for a community: homes, farms, roads, railways, restaurants, a police station, a town hall, a museum, a factory, a school. (There’s even a church, which is glimpsed but never entered.) The cast is large and varied enough to populate these places; but Dumont focuses almost all his attention on just three of the characters, isolating them to the point that their personalities seem absolute. They might be outcroppings of rock, rather than members of a society.

Séverine Caneele, who shared the best-actress prize at the 1999 Cannes festival for her performance in Humanité, plays Domino, the factory worker who is apparently the cop’s only friend and true, unattainable love. Big-boned and sturdy, with a nose that looks like it’s been pushed back into her no-nonsense mug, Domino spends much of her time loitering on the sidewalk, sweating in a revealing sleeveless blouse and complaining of the heat. You smell sex every time you see her; and you see sex (the vigorous, grunting kind) whenever her boyfriend comes by. His name is Joseph (Philippe Tullier), and he’s a bus driver: a jogging-suited jock with neatly combed hair and a pretty face, who enjoys lording it over the cop as much as he likes boffing Domino. Or perhaps he likes boffing Domino in order to lord it over the cop.

We come to the central character, who has the extraordinary name of Pharaon De Winter and is played by the equally extraordinary Emmanuel Schotté. He, too, won an award at Cannes–a distinction that aroused controversy because Schotté is so deeply weird that people thought he wasn’t acting. Physically, he’s no more outrageous a lead performer than Caneele. With his babyish cheeks and glum, pursed lips, hair like a black pile rug and torso sloping down to an incipient pot belly, Schotté will never break into the big time in Hollywood; but if you saw him in a still photograph, you’d call him average-looking. The abnormality comes from the way he walks around in that body, and from the things Dumont makes him do as Pharaon.

He clomps uninvited into Domino’s house and watches her hump Joseph on the floor. To Domino, this is a bit much–even if she has been encouraging Pharaon to pay her more attention than is strictly healthy. She seems never to go out alone with her boyfriend; Pharaon always tags along as her guest, her charity case, her flattering mirror and sad puppy. When Joseph objects, Domino tells him to lay off of Pharaon. The poor guy lost his wife and child. How did he lose them? We never find out. We can’t fully know how Pharaon became an unstringed marionette, or why he agrees to hang around with Domino and Joseph. Does he enjoy being teased? Or is it his vocation to be a witness?

While you contemplate those questions, you will notice that I haven’t mentioned the crime for many paragraphs. This is unfair, since Pharaon does conduct an investigation of sorts. He drives out to a farmhouse, ostensibly to elicit testimony (but actually to stroke the pigs). He crosses to England to question witnesses (who of course didn’t see anything, since they were passing by on a high-speed train). He even stares at old paintings, as if they concealed some crucial piece of evidence. (It’s the film’s conceit that Pharaon is the descendant of an artist.) In all this, Pharaon’s purpose seems to be not to detect but to comprehend, and on an animal level.

Three times, when encountering wrong-doing and suffering, Pharaon pokes his big nose against someone’s face and sniffs, not aggressively but with a caress, as if trying to pick up a scent he should know. The first time is at the interrogation of an incidental criminal–an Algerian-born drug dealer–who was so impossibly inept that the local cops nabbed him. The second time is during a visit to a psychiatric hospital–by far the loveliest-looking place in town–where Pharaon goes in search of leads, just because someone told him to. The final time cannot be discussed in a review. All I can say is that here, too, the union of cop and criminal is directly sealed.

At such moments, when Humanité aspires to be touching in the literal sense, as if the screen could put you in contact not with colored shadows but with things, the name of an earlier artist comes to mind–and it isn’t Agatha Christie. Dumont seems to be one of those rare filmmakers who belong to the lineage of Robert Bresson.

I apologize at once for cursing him with the comparison; it’s a burden under which no one should labor. But if that’s what it takes to characterize this hard, immaculate, unforgettable film, which is so off-putting and yet so immediate, then call me guilty as charged.

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