- Ravi Swami
A trio of black comedies by Bruno Dumont
I only really stumbled upon Bruno Dumont's 2018 film "CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans" while flicking through the films on offer on Mubi channel and the brief synopsis invited further investigation because of it's superficially science-fiction plot, referencing films like "The Invasion of The Bodysnatchers", and the fact that it is described as a comedy.
The name of the director didn't ring any immediate bells and it was only later that I realised that I had watched and enjoyed his 2021 film "France" as recently as earlier this year.
Beyond this connection I knew very little about Dumont the director or of any recurrent themes running through his work, something that became much more apparent after watching the three films reviewed here.
Linked themes and characters across a series of films are not a new thing in French cinema when you consider the work of directors like François Truffaut and Jacques Demy, nor are films that feel very localised to a particular region of France and yet still manage to address universal themes that make them very accessible to a non-Francophone audience.
Dumont's earlier work such as the two "CoinCoin / QuinQuin" films and the 2016 film "Ma Loute" (Eng: "Slack Bay") are set in Flanders, which is where he spent much of his early life and initially there's a feeling of dislocation since the region feels very unlike the rest of France, or more accurately the France familiar from many films, even linguistically.
Dumont's background in philosophy - he had no ambitions of directing and stumbled into it via corporate films - informs his early work and there's a distinctly Flemish world view that inform this films that takes a cue from the great painters that the region produced, such as Peter Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens, the latter being name-checked in "P'ti QuinQuin" (Eng: "L'il QuinQuin").
Thematically the films are linked by being crime dramas involving mysterious deaths and the presence in all three of a bumbling duo of a police inspector and his side-kick who Dumont uses as a device to intercede between the viewer and the cast of oddball characters, who appear to be made up of non-actors, some of whom are mentally impaired in some way or have a disability, with the exception of the cast of "Ma Loute" - a rough translation would be "Sweet Pea", as a term of endearment - a "Belle Epoque" period set piece featuring Juliette Binoche and several more seasoned actors and a couple of newcomers.
Dumont doesn't shy away from depicting the darker side of human nature - grisly murders, cannibalism, generational incest, fears surrounding assimilation by the "alien" and racism are the themes that are touched on in the three films.
In the first of two films, "L'il QuinQuin", the titular character is a young boy who lives on a farm on the edge of poverty in the rural Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France with his parents, grandparents and uncle, who is mentally challenged. QuinQuin has a simmering rage that is compounded by the fact that he has a facial disfigurement, and that finds expression in pranks like throwing firework "bangers" at courting couples or his mother or racially harassing local Arab or African immigrants boys along with his two friends.
The film opens with a grisly crime scene where the body of a cow is found stuffed with dismembered human remains, and introduces "Roger Van der Weyden", the local chief inspector of police and his lieutenant "Carpentier". Van her Weyden suffers from various facial and physical tics and Carpentier's chief goal in life when he isn't acting as a foil the Van Der Weyden is to do "side-wheelies" in the police car he drives his boss around in.
The plot details an investigation into a spiralling series of murders of the same nature as that which opens the film but to describe it as a crime procedural would be an over simplification - within this framework Dumont addresses issues surrounding racism, economic disparity of rural communities and dark family secrets that serve to expose French prejudices concerning Northern France, eg that inbreeding is prevalent in rural communities.
Dumont revisits the same themes in the follow-up film, "CoinCoin and the Extra Humans", featuring the same duo of Van der Weyden and Carpentier and a now older and possibly wiser "CoinCoin", whose girlfriend from the first film is now in a same-sex relationship with another farm worker, leaving the lovelorn CoinCoin to seek solace elsewhere.
The murders of the first film are replaced by a mysterious black tar-like substance that falls from the sky and then creates clones of the unfortunate victims if it happens to fall on them, leading to comedic situations.
Compared to the first film it drags a little and suffers from repetition or running gags, but it's broad themes are those of fears concerning immigration - wandering groups of itinerant North African farm workers drift through shots of the flat expanses of farmland looking for employment - and Dumont neatly flips the issue on it's head by having the locals be assimilated by the mysterious black tar to be replaced by duplicates of themselves.
The two films are populated by the archetypes present in the works of Brueghel, Bosch and Rubens and use comedy to avoid overt didacticism - both van Der Weyden and Carpentier are like the Blind Leading the Blind, stumbling from one situation to the next and surrounded by the vices of the local population, while Van Der Weyden is almost a god-like figure in the sense that he sees everything in an entirely non-judgmental way while also being subject to ridicule, whereas Carpentier applies a kind of logical deduction that eludes his boss but also leads to jumping to conclusions based on his own prejudices.
"Ma Loute" (Eng: "Slack Bay") similarly centres on mysterious disappearances, this time of visiting tourists to a rural location and of the three films, besides being framed as a farce, it more obviously references the painterly works mentioned previously.
The bourgeois Van Peteghems occupy an elaborate summer retreat designed to look like an Egyption temple on the top of a hill overlooking "Slack Bay". Below them, the Bruforts are a family of peasant farmers who earn a living carrying tourists bodily across a river or rowing them across the bay.
Investigating a mysterious series of disappearances are a couple of bumbling detectives, Machin and Malfoy, who are constantly outwitted by the perpetrator/s, who in fact turn out to be the father and son Brufort.
The Brufort's hatred of the bourgeois "Townies" is made very clear at the outset but horrifically it doesn't stop short at mere hatred, since the Brufort's have degenerated to cannibalism - another wry commentary of French attitudes to rural communities expressed here literally as the poor eating the rich, along with inbreeding on both sides.
To make matters worse, the younger Brufort falls for "Raph", the daughter of Aude van Peteghem, (Juliette Binoche in an unusually over the top hysterical performance) who to complicate things further is made to dress as a boy, which causes Aude considerable distress due to the implicit social embarrassment.
Dark family secrets within the van Peteghems are revealed when it is suggested that Aude's daughter is the result of incest with either Aude's father or her slightly loopy brother, Andre van Peteghem (Fabrice Luchini), with the resulting mental instability explaining her over-dramatising and hysteria.
The Biblical metaphors soon become more apparent as Slack Bay is depicted as a stand-in for a kind of Garden of Eden where the rural communities are symbolic of original sin and the Van Peteghems are supposedly civilised and both romanticise and literally look down upon the Brufoys and their ilk, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to morality.
Redemption of sorts comes to the Van Peteghems after they pray to a shrine to the Virgin Mary dedicated to the fishermen on the coast and at this point Dumont introduces an element of surrealist comedy involving random levitations, ending the film hilariously as the grossly obese detective Machin is borne aloft like a balloon and drifts off down the beach with the Van Peteghems in hot pursuit.
Bruno Dumont is certainly one of the most interesting directors of the current generation and it's equally interesting to note that his next film will be a science-fiction subject again set in his native Flanders/Northern France entitled "L'Empire" and featuring a cast of young newcomers and some familiar faces from his earlier films, most notably Fabrice Luchini ("Andre van Peteghem") and Bernard Pruvost ("Roger Van der Weyden").
Several of his other films are also available to view on Mubi and Apple TV so I'll definitely be checking those out.
A mere footnote seems inadequate when mentioning Dumont's preferred format of Cinemascope which turns the landscape of northern France into a character in itself and references the artistic inspirations mentioned above.
"L'il QuinQuin", Dir: Bruno Dumont, 2014
"Ma Loute", Dir: Bruno Dumont, 2016
"Coincoin et les z'inhumains", Dir: Bruno Dumont, 2018 Mubi Channel / Apple TV