A chopped-up body is discovered inside a dead cow in a desolate WWII bunker. Yes, this is Bruno Dumont’s first overt comedy, a shift to screwball and slapstick — and his first assignment as a TV director. The four-part series “Li’l Quinquin,” which he developed for Arte France, screened as a 200-minute film in the Directors Fortnight section during the Cannes Film Festival, and had critics laughing out loud more than once.
The series, scheduled to air on French television via Arte this fall, might be extended to a second season if it plays well — “but it was commissioned as a four-part-series and nothing else has been signed yet,” Dumont told Indiewire. He also expressed his hope for the film version and/or the series to be picked up outside Europe: “U.S. theatrical release would be great, of course, maybe a TV airing too, we have no news on this yet.” (Since Cannes, it has been acquired by Kino Lorber for U.S. distribution.)
An improbable police procedural, “Li’l Quinquin” focuses on bizarre crimes on the outskirts of a small Channel town in the Boulonnais, which has fallen prey to a band of young scoundrels led by “teenage dirtbag” Li’l Quinquin (Philippe Jore) and his beloved girlfriend Eve (Alane Delhaye). And the film is actually quite in line with Dumont’s work in general — even though Dumont has established himself as an auteur of the grotesque, comedy has always lurked in his films. “But it’s been hidden in tragedy,” he explained. “In this respect, ‘Li’l Quinquin’ almost feels like a self-parody now.”
With seven features yet to his credit — “The Life of Jesus” (1997), “Humanity” (1999), “Twentynine Palms” (2003), “Flanders” (2006), “Hadewijch” (2009), “Hors Satan” (2011), “Camille Claudel 1915” (2013) — the French director is clearly interested in the dialectic of good and evil as inherent to human nature, and in “Li’l Quinquin” this theme becomes apparent once again: Where does the human end and the beast begin, if stuffed into a supposedly innocent animal creature?
It’s not just a question the investigating Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his partner Carpentier (Philippe Jore) ask themselves. We asked Dumont the same thing, when sitting down to interview him in Cannes, and he threw the question back at us: “Well, do you think you could draw a clear line if all the participants were still alive?”
Turning to TV now is no less a “natural evolution” than “finally” openly committing to comedy, Dumont said. “It’s an intellectual evolution as well, I should say. Comedy is never far from drama anyway, and that’s why it doesn’t feel unnatural for me to go there.”
The project started when Arte approached Dumont’s producer with the idea to make a four-part TV series. “I was completely free to do whatever I wanted — their only condition was that I had to stick to the duration of 52 minutes per episode and to their format,” Dumont said.
So while as a film, “Li’l Quinquin” is screened in DCP Scope 2.39, for TV they didn’t want him to use too many long shots. “But I’m fine with constraints,” he said. “I adapt easily, I’m not the type of director who freaks out with obstacles. Quite the contrary — they serve me very often and I come up with different ideas then.”
The difference the piece might have, depending on whether it will be screened as a film on the big screen, or as a series on TV, does not worry Dumont: “What really affects the work is that as a series, it’s longer. But you had long novels, like with Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ and you had the series of Monet paintings of the haystacks.”
In its episodic structure, “Li’l Quinquin” marks a strong return to the nature of archaic narrative in Dumont’s work. For him, it also sets out to take the genre of comedy more seriously too. “It’s, of course, a misconception that something is not running deep just because it’s funny. Comedy provides a strong capacity to engage with it in an expressionist way, and I happily embrace that,” Dumont said. “Laughter, in fact, is just some kind of explosion, a burst, a happening. It reveals hidden zones of human nature and with it zones of falseness and ambiguity. And to reveal something is the role of cinema, I think.”
Dumont’s “L’Humanité” also followed — on the surface — the narrative of a police procedural, in which the resolution of the case is not the first and foremost concern, and Dumont likes the potential of this set-up. “I play with the very memory that viewers have of the crime series genre, and I turn it to parody.” It’s a device that also allows him to touch upon current sociopolitical topics in France: Immigration, racism, terrorism are all addressed in “Li’l Qunquin.” “It is what I observe in the tiny villages of that region,” Dumont said. “And we know that it is representative of the whole country. I speak from a small village in the North, but indeed, I speak about France as a whole.”
When it comes to comedy, Dumont is especially drawn to the notion of transgression. “The exaggeration, the accumulation, the repetition, the burlesque: it all turns into something deformed at some point,” he said. “I’m interested in how reality can be distorted. People often say I’m a naturalistic director, but I really disagree. Just the fact that I work with non-professional actors and I use natural sound doesn’t make me naturalistic.”
In “Li’l Quinquin,” distortion comes in different shapes, very prominently on the physical level and most visible in obsessive physical behavior, always deeply rooted in the essence of what Dumont strives for artistically. “I think if there’s no distortion or no alteration, there can’t be expression,” he said. “Art, for me, has got nothing to do with factual reality. Anything without distortion or modification is documentary. The distortion has to be either the way you’re going to design the character, the way you’re constructing the dialogues, the type of the faces of the people, the way they move; this is what I like. I like working on making these modifications. Because only with these alterations reality becomes interesting; it looks curious, weird. And that interests me. That way it becomes expressionist and that’s how it gains the sense and the meaning and it becomes cinema.”
The character of Van der Weyden embodies Dumont’s special love for Flamish painters — not only evident from the policeman’s name, but also from the inspector’s own love for disproportions (yes, for example, big horse asses). “I love that Flamish painting is not about perspective,” Dumont said, “and the Captain embodies that as well. Things are out of proportion; they are sort of distorted, altered — in his world as well. This way things and people look curious, different. In Flamish paintings, ordinary people are becoming heroes.”
That’s something he finds in paintings of Govaerts and the Van der Weydens, Dumont said. “‘The virgin and child,’ set in the actual Flanders landscape, for example. That is something I like. That shows a relationship with spirituality that is not devoid of humor, and it shows a sense for the grotesque too. It inspires me. I do not invent anything — I follow the tradition of those painters, of a Northern part, a tragicomic tradition, where death is always there, it’s inherent, and nevertheless, it’s somewhat fun. It’s a philosophical mix between tragedy and drama and comedy.”
The setting of “Li’l Quinquin” seamlessly fits into the universe of Dumont’s work, especially films like “Flanders” or “Hors Satan.” Again shot in the region of Northern Calais, in Dumont’s hands, this becomes a place that creates the sensation that it might be possible for doom and hope to co-exist. “That’s because it is possible,” according to Dumont. “That region defines me, I am bound to it with all my being, my blood flows through it. In fact, it is the beginning of everything. You could call it the backdrop for my quest for a universal truth.”
It’s a perception reflected in his choice of usually non-professional actors, as well: Their own local identity is an integral part in all of Dumont’s films. “Their background, their identity, provides the foundation without which their transfiguration for the cinema could never take place,” he said. “I deliberately choose the ‘wrong’ kind of people for the cast every time. I like the offbeat aspect that comes out of it. Especially in ‘Li’l Quinquin’ it was great to do so, because those people actually aren’t very funny in real life. Their roles for sure could have been embodied better by somebody else, but that’s not what I’m interested in.”
An additional bonus is the actors’ natural fear: “I never write fear into the script. Thus, my characters never have to act as if they feared anything. They are all very fatalistic. At the same time, non-professional actors bring some fear to their character nonetheless. Provost as van der Weyden in this film doesn’t play the fear, he carries the fear inside himself, and that’s what makes him sensitive and more emotional. And, by the way, his partner Carpentier drives so badly because he’s afraid to drive, he hates it.”
Captain Van der Weyden is, of course, an utterly incompetent detective, resembling Dumont’s Pharaon of “L’Humanité” again. And, quite similarly, facing all these atrocities, he is overwhelmed by an empathy for others of which maybe only few people are even capable. “Van der Weyden longs to connect with humanity,” Dumont said. “But especially in his job, he is frustrated at every turn. He’s facing the primitive aspect of humanity every day. That’s what I’m interested in. The human side of humans does not really interest me. Not much is needed to reveal the barbarism in human beings, it’s always there. I’m interested in this ‘nothing’ that is preceding everything. Violence and sex belong there, because they are instincts. They might come from nowhere, might not be preceded by anything, but they are beginnings of something else. Somewhere in this logic, I always showed policemen as failures. I like the failure and I like beginnings.”
It seemed Dumont was indeed capable of hope — could that be true? “I believe irony is what is going to save us,” he said. “That is also one reason why I really enjoyed making a comic film now. Comedy is the road for irony and it’s also the road for hope. Even if we know that ‘Li’l Quinquin’ is only a small beast growing up to be a big one, there is some irony in knowing this. We also know that there is the possibility that he could become a good man. And he is a good lover. Really, irony is my optimism.”