Pick of the Geek – L’humanité

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A prime example of the kind of film that made Bruno Dumont the best new hope for European arthouse/an enemy of the people (delete according to taste), L’humanité provoked furious amounts of booing when it won three awards at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and may still provoke furious laughter from audiences today, particularly when a lengthy sex scene is interrupted by a shot revealing that the film’s placid hero Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotte) has been standing in the doorway watching for an unspecified length of time. In the light of Dumont’s later turn into broad comedy with Lil’ Quinquin and this year’s Slack Bay, we might reassess these moments as conscious attempts at humour. No doubt, though, that L’humanité is some rum business indeed. Starting on a note of supreme bleakness with the discovery of the naked, violated corpse of an underage girl, it follows Pharaon as he endeavours both to solve the crime and keep his increasingly painful attraction to his neighbour under wraps. Pharaon is a credentialed police detective, despite having a manner so blank and robotic most viewers interpret him as mentally handicapped, but somehow he seems to fit into the blank, drained, depressed rural France that Dumont locates his film in.

Dumont has spoken before of enjoying ‘bad’ performances, of shaping his films around what he is given by his usually non-professional cast rather than trying to force them to conform to his original vision, and it might be that Schotte’s strange, half-ridiculous, half-eerie performance has set what could have been a simple detective drama onto a very different path. Without spoiling anything, Dumont still has his outsider’s fascination with religion, particularly the self-denying, self-sacrificing end of Christian theology, and it may be that Pharaon believes his immersion in this unusually sordid case is a kind of sacrifice all of itself. The tension frequently comes less from the mechanics of the case than from wondering whether Dumont can actually hold this thing together, but he actually manages it, not least because his pacing and formal precision recall – on just his second film! – Kubrick in his prime.

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