dir.: Bruno Dumont
NR, 148 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre
The only time I’ve ever known someone who was killed, many years ago, one of my first thoughts was what I was doing at the time it happened. I heard the same thing from many others who knew the person in question. It wasn’t because any of us were suspects; we all looked at each other and saw nice normal people. It was because the thought of the crime happening at all made everyone feel sick and inwardly suspicious. Nobody wanted to think that a human being, any human being, was capable of such an act. And if anybody could do such a thing, it raised the possibility that somewhere, in the mind’s darkest corners, everybody could.
The crime was never solved, or so we were told. Most people thought they knew who did it. But the knowledge didn’t make anyone sleep better at night. It didn’t erase the fact of the murder, or the ruined lives in its wake, or the questions about human nature that no one wanted to face. That’s one crucial difference between the fact of crime and the fictions we construct around it in cop shows, courtroom thrillers, and procedural mysteries. There the shock waves of the crime stop cold with the solution and the parceling out of justice. The procedural mystery reassures us that there is order in the world. It’s this reassurance that a recent French movie called L’Humanité methodically, and effectively, destroys.
L’Humanité touched off a controversy on both sides of the Atlantic last year, when a jury led by David Cronenberg awarded the movie several top prizes at the 1999 Cannes film festival. At a time (like now) when the mainstream U.S. press was delivering a beatdown to what it perceived as egghead foreign fare, the movie was denounced as too slow, too disturbing, too uncommercial. And indeed it is sometimes pretentious, difficult, and maddening, as the grandiose title threatens. But L’Humanité addresses the existence of evil and the hope of redemption in startling, heroic ways. And it examines crime’s implications, in every sense of the word, in ways that make our own shoot-’em-ups look pallid and juvenile. Since the movie has provoked such wildly different interpretations, you should probably stop reading at this point if you plan to see it.
In the shocking sequence that opens L’Humanité, a lone figure walks in long shot silhouetted against the hilly far horizon. He scrambles, stumbles, falls, then makes his way to his car, where his radio is buzzing. He is a policeman. He answers, then listens to a bit of music, bracing himself for what is to come. He cuts it off and drives out of the frame, leaving only quiet landscape. Without warning, the movie cuts jarringly from this peaceful scene to a close-up of something so grisly and alien we don’t register it for a moment. It is the bloodied crotch of a little girl, whose body has been found discarded in a field.
If this sounds sensational, it’s as far from titillating as movies get. The director, Bruno Dumont, is hitting us as well as his policeman hero with the stark evidence of human nature at its worst. This cop, a gentle, withdrawn mope named Pharaon played by first-time actor Emmanuel Schotté, is a painfully empathetic soul who does his job without an ounce of enthusiasm. Instead, he seeks signs of redemption in the confused people around him. His closest companion is Domino (Séverine Caneele), a worker in a local paint factory who’s locked in a joyless sexual relationship with a dominating bus driver, Joseph (Philippe Tullier). When Pharaon isn’t watching her and Joseph with regret, he’s conducting an almost tentative pursuit of the killer.
Ordinarily, the search would provoke suspense, and the resolution would leave us with a sigh of relief. But there’s no urgency to Pharaon’s inquest. Much of the movie is given over to his lonely meanderings around his French industrial town, and at first his sluggish progress is exasperating. But it becomes clear that Pharaon is in no hurry to face yet again the anguish, guilt, and inexplicable cruelty of his fellow maneven though his job demands that he confront mankind at its worst.
Pharaon the anguished watcher could be one of the angels who passes unseen amongst humans in Wings of Desire. (There’s even a suggestion near the end that he is indeed touched with metaphysical grace.) At one point, after questioning the crime’s only witnesses in a British high-rise, Pharaon looks down to see a motorist being kicked and beaten. The policeman’s expression is almost beatifically sad; unlike Wim Wenders’ angels over Berlin, though, Pharaon is powerless not to feel. He assumes the suffering of others, from the dead girl to Dominoeven, finally, the object of his quest.
Emmanuel Schotté’s award for best actor pissed off more people at Cannes than almost anything else: Some reviewers even looked at his awkward, nonprofessional presence and concluded that Pharaon was retarded. With his big wet eyes set in a stubble-smudged foccacia of a face, Schotté may not be much of an actor, but he’s a tremendous reactor. In this sense, he’s perfectly cast: Pharaon is the kind of literary/spiritual conceit that a professional actor might feel too self-conscious to pull off. How do you play the projection of all mankind’s suffering? As played by Schotté, though, Pharaon simply stands beside his townspeople and registers instantly their potential for goodness, evil, or redemption. His face is the movie’s moral barometer; his expressions are as telling as the reaction shots in silent movies.
At first, L’Humanité’s ponderous silences and weighted symbolism resemble a parody of European art movies. But the effect wears off under Dumont’s relentless focus. The first time I watched the movie, I laughed when Schotté launched into his Big Moment: a yowl of inarticulate rage delivered while tearing ass across a field. The combination of his Frankenstein lumber, blank face, and inexpressive bellow is so inadequate to the depth of what he’s trying to express that it seemed unintentionally funny. Yet that pitiful inadequacy is what stayed with me. Pharaon tries to shout out all the horror and pain he’s seen, but he can’t find the scream that would dislodge that damburst of darkness. What’s more achingly human than grappling with the infinite and losing?
At the end, the moment when most mysteries send us safely home to bed, Dumont offers a torrent of last-minute ambiguities that make closure impossible. The killer’s identity is as much of a shock to Pharaon as it is to us; there is no explanation for the crime. What explanation could there be? In a final series of images whose meaning (and content) has been debated now for more than a year, the guilt appears to extend beyond the killer, a gesture of either culpability or a Christ-like assumption of mankind’s sins. (I believe the latter.) Dumont denies us catharsis as if he were withholding absolution. Catharsis means the show’s over and we can file away the experience: case closed. In L’Humanité, the case can be solved, but never the mystery.
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