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HUMANITÉ, L(director/writer: Bruno Dumont; cinematographer: Yves Cape; editor: Guy Lecorne; music: Richard Cuvilier; cast: Emmanuel Schotté (Pharaon De Winter), Severine Caneele (Domino), Philippe Tullier (Joseph), Ghislain Ghesquiere (Police Chief), Ginette Allegre (Eliane), Daniel Petillon (Jean, the cop); Runtime: 148; 3B Productions; 1999-France)
“When viewed as an unusual film with not the usual things to say about its main character, it starts to look a lot better and seems more compelling.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director/writer Bruno Dumont (TheLife of Jesus) presents an improbable mystery story in the same dreary northern France town, Pas de Calais, as his only other film (it’s the director’s hometown). But the director has other things on his mind than to tell a sensible crime story. He better since his hero is a bumbler as a policeman and the crime investigation he conducts seems unbelievable. The director’s aim is instead in revealing more about his main characters’ sexual nature and their deeper psychological states. He intends to make the lonely, pathetically sad, bachelor police superintendent, Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), who lives with his overbearing mother (Ginette Allegre), either into a saintly or a madman figure — someone who feels the pain of others and is unafraid to show it (he strangely hugs arrested criminals and a doctor at a mental hospital, and literally sniffs with his nose against a few suspects’ faces when he hugs them).

The film might be pretentious and dull and overlong at 148 minutes and the nonprofessional actors might be lacking stage presence (but not for me, they were actors in the natural ala Bresson). In any case, the character Schotté plays is memorable and the overall impact of the way he lives by observing things fully and Dumont’s sharp view of the monotonous town, painted as if by a portrait/landscape artist like Hopper, makes for powerful cinema. It’s a search for truth film: but the artist and the police (science) find that their searches do not lead to the same truths.

The sweet but unfulfilled character Schotté plays must exist in a world where it is the aggressive and unsavory ones who steal the prizes. Schotté is reduced to identifying with the rape vic or any other vic, and is too weak to have any authority over the louts in the world he deals with everyday. He’s an old-fashioned type of nice guy who is naively looking for pure love in a corrupt world. The film never lets us know if he will succeed or grow increasingly resigned to failure like everyone else in town. It only strongly hints that what you see is what will continue.

Pharaon investigates the murder and rape of an 11-year-old girl on her way home from school, whose mutilated naked body is discovered in a field. The crime leaves him anguished and perplexed how someone could do such a horrible thing to another human being, and to get the full impact of what the cop saw the viewer also sees the bloody girl’s vagina. His superior officer, the police chief, (Ghislain Ghesquiere), is a blunt, ruddy-cheeked obese man who is taking all this in stride — it’s simply his job to get the evil man who did this and he has no time to feel sorry for the victim.

The film focuses on the routine life that Pharaon leads, as he mostly stays at home to watch soccer games on TV or ride his bike. He is quite taken with his factory worker neighbor Domino (Caneele)—a stout woman with a strong sexual appetite for her boorish school bus driver boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier). They frequently go on almost non-verbal dates with Pharaon sheepishly tagging along while secretly pining for Domino. By accident he sees the couple make animal-like but passionless love on the floor one day when they leave the door open to her room. Feeling sorry for him she will offer him her body at one point of the story, but in the crude way she offers herself makes him turn down her gift. There is little else we know about the quiet Pharaon, except it is mentioned by his mother that two years ago he had a woman who had his child — but they both died. There’s one scene at an art museum where it is mentioned that he’s the grand-son of a noted local artist, as he comes by to lend the art curator a painting of that artist for an upcoming exhibit. It is interesting to note that he looks at the museum painting of a little girl in the same fixated way he looks at the crime scene.

A great many scenes show Pharaon meeting Domino by their quiet street of red brick apartment houses all lined-up in a row, as the two confidantes endlessly seem to be waiting for each other while leaning against the building.

That the crime is finally solved by outside detectives from the town of Lille, doesn’t even seem to be that important to the story. What takes center stage is how the ordinary man (probably a metaphor for the universal common man) is stuck in such an empty life and has no solution for his unhappiness.

If you don’t take this film to be a realistic crime story and can overlook how unlikely a policeman our hero makes, then perhaps you can see how daring an attack this film makes on the institutions (school, police, municipal government, and church) and on the lack of culture. Every character in the film seems to have no direction, but needs to keep moving in order to stay alive. If it weren’t for sex, one could probably die from boredom. I imagine that quite a few moviegoers also fell by the wayside and in their disapproval of the crime story and overlooked how this film was subtle and subversive.

The film won the grand jury prize at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival; Emmanuel Schotté won as best actor, and Severine Caneele shared the best actress award. But these Cannes awards were not popular with the public.

The film itself is far from perfect and it is far too bleak for the viewer to become absorbed in a loser like Schotté without also becoming down. But when viewed as an unusual film with not the usual things to say about its main character, it starts to look a lot better.

REVIEWED ON 4/13/2002 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”