When an 11-year-old girl is brutally raped and murdered in a quiet French village, a police detective who has forgotten how to feel emotions--because of the death of his own family in some kind of accident--investigates the crime, which turns out to ask more questions than it answers.
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In a town near Lille, melancholy police superintendent Pharaon De Winter lives with his mother. An 11-year-old girl has been raped and murdered. Over the next week, De Winter investigates and grieves, his face nearly expressionless. He bikes, he gardens. He accompanies his neighbors, Joseph and Domino, to dinner and to the seaside; he even observes them in vigorous if not rough coitus. For Domino, sex seems her way of connecting. Does she fancy Pharaon? A plowed field, the sea, Pharaon's flowers, the pudenda of Domino and of the ravaged girl - this mix of images of beauty, evil, and possibility assaults Pharaon as he tries to do his job and hold on to his humanity. Written by
Movie as existential metareality, states of being. Severe and unadorned like Bresson, but Bresson slowed to quarter speed, bereft of any possibility of redemption, leaving only brutality, suffering, and, over all, an oppressive sheer physicality. In strict accordance with the well circulated theory propounded decades ago by Levi-Strauss, it belongs with those works which attempt to exorcise human demons by exposing them, spitting them out for all to see.
In a small Flanders village, Bailleul, a police superintendent, a particularly morose, melancholy little man, Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotte), investigates the brutal rape-murder of an 11 year-old girl, a crime he himself may or may not have committed. About half-way into the film we find out he "lost" his wife and child two years previously, and by the end of the film are left to wonder if didn't kill them as well. His very name suggests ancient Egyptian lineage. He lives a celibate life with his mother, Eliane (Ginette Allegre), in a working-class row house a couple of doors down from a woman for whom he has affections, Domino (Severine Caneele), but who is romantically involved with his best friend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier). The sexual tensions among the 3 are ambiguously both hetero- and homo-erotic. (Schotté and Caneele won awards for best actor and actress at the 1999 Cannes International Film Festival.)
The pace is s-l-o-w, like watching cows graze. The camera stares unblinkingly out at the world in prolonged shots, exemplifying the McLuhan-Warhol dictum that the medium makes the message (overtakes the message?). (Or is it that the tedium is the message?) Such monotony is supposed to defeat our conditioned expectations and force us back into our own world, make us take notice of the mundane, e.g., Warhol's sleeping subject. Real-time is meant to supplant artificial movie-time, resulting in a heavy physical presence, a naked unyielding reality, the world as it is sans artifice.
By this unabashed unedited naturalistic openness Dumont aims to: 1) capture the human animal in its native condition, the dumb beast which is all of us, as it desires, schemes, sweats, breathes, watches, waits, and imperceptibly ages; and 2) extricate from this hard-won unforgiving reality a realistic appraisal of man's true moral nature, of good and evil, disclosing their inexorable intertwining, resonant interdependence. With the investigator possibly being the investigated, there's that old ambiguous equality of cop and criminal, found, for example, in Norman Mailer's "Beyond The Law," (itself a Dostoevskian treatment), or in any of the innumerable routine actioners in which an undercover cop merges with his forged identity. The plot question of whodunit is supposed to fade into irrelevancy in the face of The Big Question of Good and Evil. The grief of the superintendent is the same, whether or not he committed the crime.
Dumont is a pessimist: man is fated to blindly act out his urges in a world he can never fully comprehend. Like the only witnesses to the rape, an elderly couple who rode by in a speeding train at 180 MPH, we ourselves are moving too fast and are too far away to ever see reality. Like the strikers in the film who capitulate to the bosses, we are too gutless to break the stranglehold of oppressive social circumstances. As enforcers of oppressive social order and conformity, the police successfully oppose the strikers, but are, when confronted with the real face of crime, its real human dimensions, impotent and indifferent, which is neatly summarized in the scene in which two cops casually look down from a high-rise building on a fight being silently played out on the ground. The Church constantly looms in the background. Symbolically situated at the end of the superintendent's street, its grey stone spires loom over him. Domino walks by a church, the camera peering in passing into its deep dark interior, through which a large white cross shines, remote, deathly. A museum has dusky blood-red walls, on which hang the paintings, postage stamp visions swamped by a sea of red. The white cliffs of Dover come in and out of view. ghostly, remote. We move through a world in which everything is unreachable, distant, and implacable.
But is it Real or Memorex? Stephen Holden of The New York Times writes: "This is a movie in which a close-up scene of something as commonplace as a woman peeling a potato implies an undercurrent of savage violation." But sometimes a potato is just a potato, a cigar just a cigar. You can slow it to a snail's pace, remove all the makeup and artifice, do away with dramatic dialogue and plot, but in the end film is inherently incapable of conveying the full sensory experience of life, of being in time, as this one valiantly tries to do, because it is limited to just 2 of the 5 senses, to sight and sound. It will always be shadows of shadows on a cave wall.
This isn't a film one "likes"; watching it is like wearing a hair shirt, an enlightening punishment. Rarely has the sexual act been as unattractive, as remotely observed; rarely, if ever, has a nonpornographic film depicted female genitalia as clinically.
"L'Humanité" is incohesive, only intermittently successful. Its many fine moments are separated by interminable stretches of tedium, their intensity diluted by blandness. The meaninglessness it depicts overtakes it. Like a bubble that keeps expanding, trying to take in the world, it ultimately bursts.
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