The murder of an 11-year-old girl in a quiet French village is the backdrop to Bruno Dumont’s film L'humanité (Humanity). But this is not your average detective flick – far from it. For this is a film which takes as its subject the emotional retardation of its main character, police inspector Pharaon De Winter played by Emmanuel Schotté.
It transpires that Pharaon has himself not only lost a daughter but a wife too. Whichever way he ‘lost’ his family – and it is never revealed – the loss has traumatised him to such an extent he has become a shell of a human being, bereft of the emotions and engagement which make people human. He neither laughs nor frowns once during L'humanité’s 124-minute running time. Nor do any of the other characters.
Indeed, the detective can hardly bring himself to speak. When he does manage to utter a few words, his communication is sparse, monotone – always a struggle. This is a man who has become disconnected with the world, a man who is alive but not living.
The only hope for this extremely morose detective appears to be his sultry neighbour Domino (Séverine Caneele) a lady who spends most of her time posing outside her terrace on the stark, empty street in which these people live. Despite having a boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier) and with whom she engages in hi-energy coitus whenever the opportunity presents, it’s just possible Domino might prefer her taciturn neighbour.
Thus, an unlikely threesome forms as, at Domino’s request, Pharaon joins the lovers for dinner and days out – strange, silent affairs tolerated by Joseph. A full-blooded male archetype, Joseph’s masculinity contrasts starkly with Pharaon’s timidity and sensitivity. Now the French have always loved a menage a trois and L'humanité presents an interesting twist on this theme.
The murder investigation plods along but if it’s a traditional detective plot you want, look elsewhere. This is a film about the interior, about internal suffering, about withdrawal. The camera shots always linger a little longer than expected; the environment is mundane; the silences many. All of which creates an odd quasi-naturalistic brew of a movie.
It gets even odder when the hero indulges in some peculiar behaviour – hugging and proceeding to neck random males met in the course of duty. Unable to form any kind of relationship with those around him including his mother and boss, Pharaon is yearning for human contact, warmth. Maybe then it comes as no surprise when he declines an opportunity to bed Domino.
There’s no getting away from it, with its oppressive sense of alienation and its grim cinematography there can be few films quite as bleak as L'humanité. The people in this world are indeed merely existing. At times, the monotony verges on the nihilistic making Pharaon’s occasional outbursts more than understandable. The only beauty in this movie is to be found in the flowers of the anti-hero’s allotment – a rare splash of colour in an otherwise grey universe.
Occasionally a film comes along which defies description. Dumont’s 1999 effort is one such film. ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world!’ so said a dispirited Hamlet once upon a time. But Hamlet’s Denmark is nothing compared to the empty world presented here. It’s as if all emotion has been squeezed out of these characters as from a tube of toothpaste.
Yet for all the gloominess, lack of suspense and narrative coherence, it’s a film that is strangely compelling. At times explicit, it’s a film that sets out to challenge assumptions not only about human nature, but art and cinema.
Be warned then - there’s nothing neat and tidy about this film. Cinematic marmite, Pharaon De Winter, its anti-hero lead, will either draw your sympathy or your ire while the rest of the characters, provided you make it to the end, might leave you perplexed, intrigued and maybe even a little despondent.
What makes the film even more appealing is the fact that its male and female lead’s careers have not followed the usual actor’s trajectory: Schotté has just a single imdb credit (this film) while Caneele has just a couple more. And suddenly the rawness of performance makes sense: these guys were not pros – not really. I knew there was something about these performances I liked.
Masterpiece or dud? That will depend entirely on you, the viewer and the expectations you bring to the show.