A French Twin Peaks where crimes are investigated Clouseau-style, Bruno Dumont’s absurd black comedy P’tit Quinquin is both murder mystery ‘policier’ and satire.
A Shot In The Darkby Alexa Dalby
In a sleepy small town on the coast near Boulogne, nothing ever happens – and very slowly. It’s not quite la France profonde because on a clear day you can see England, but it’s sunk into a rural stupor, peopled by inhabitants – almost all of whom are farmers – who look as if they’ve been hewn out of lumpy soil and speak in an almost impenetrable dialect. Then a dismembered, headless body is found inside a dead cow in an old Second World War bunker. It’s the start of an increasingly absurd black comedy that has something unsettling at its heart.
Watching the police helicopter retrieve the cow is the most exciting thing mischievous P’tit Quinquin (slang for Little Kid) and his gang, bored and cruising the countryside on their bikes, have ever seen. And it’s the first of a series of increasingly bizarre and ridiculous discoveries combining dead bodies and animals, and prurient speculation as to how the one got inside the other, as an apparent serial killer continues to strike over the next few days.
The investigating police seem useless in the face of bafflement and their investigation lags several steps behind. Commandant (Inspector) van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) is a Clouseau-ish mass of tics, stumbles and mumbles. His nickname is The Fog. His long-suffering sidekick Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) has bad teeth and a penchant for doing 360-degree wheelies in the cop car as he guns it away from a crime scene or an interrogation. Though the investigation is bumbling, and takes the long way round the scenic route with the children one step behind – or sometimes ahead – it gradually reveals – almost in spite of itself – a hidden network of secret family relationships and illicit liaisons in the small, ingrown community. When finally linked together, they provide a likely motive for the murders. It also reveals a pervading culture of casual racism and hostility towards immigrants, as personified by the sole black Muslim family.
This is director Bruno Dumont’s satirical vision of France. It can’t be random that the centre point of the marathon four-hour film (originally a four-episode mini-series) is the community’s celebration of the French national day, Bastille Day on 14th July. The comic-opera-uniformed town band wheezes through La Marseillaise, with P’tit Quinquin’s petite love Eve on trumpet, while overweight majorettes twirl their batons until bystanders drift away. It’s a France celebrating a sentimental vision of itself. It’s full of paradoxes – P’tit Quinquin and Eve in their innocent, childish love affair consisting of hugs and a kiss, are aping adult relationships – “Do I satisfy you?” – without real understanding. Yet their emotions seem more real than those of the adults; the town is near the sea, but its windswept beach, though sunny, is empty and the sea is freezing, only the shivering kids venturing in.
It’s also a France that’s isolated, provincial, prejudiced, hypocritical, inward-looking, where people are unable to see a life beyond what they have, and are blind to the simmering tensions in its changing society and the potential for violent explosion. It’s an extra irony that, when unexpected sudden violence and tragedy happens, the only person who seems to understand why, and who expresses that realisation in a sudden burst of eloquence, is a character who had seemed the least perceptive. Only Eve’s big sister Aurélie can see a life outside when she competes in a talent competion that may get her to Paris.
The film is an irresistibly funny accretion of quirky characters and bizarre details – the unpriestly behaviour of the priests at a funeral; the excruciating tuneless, inappropriate yet strangely touching song sung by Aurélie (Lisa Hartmann, who also wrote it); the disruption caused by the English family in the restaurant; the police inspector’s inappropriate ride on a horse – to list just a few. All these odd and sometimes bad-taste incidents are extraneous to the plot but over time they create a sense of comical strangeness.
Many of the actors are non-professionals. The professionals maintain the absurd deadpan tone beautifully, and the two children – Alane Delhaye (Quinquin) and Lucy Caron (Eve) are superb. Delhaye conveys Quinquin’s contradictions – he’s pugnacious, with a face like a beaten-up bruiser, affectionate, mature for his years, likeable yet also gratuitous with firecrackers, foul-mouthed, violent and racist. Eve, who lives on the neighbouring farm, is a responsible adult in miniature. Their relationship is touching in a film where adults are mainly rotten. The film moves slowly, everything seems to happen in real time – and seems to take its time – but the rhythm of its long takes is compulsive. Though it still has Dumont’s concerns about the nature of good and evil, it’s a very funny creative departure from his previous six films. Apparently Channing Tatum is up for the Hollywood remake.
Li’l Quinquin is released on 10th July 2015 in the UK