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
The French writer-director Bruno Dumont achieves something rarely accomplished since TAXI DRIVER and ERASERHEAD: a way of looking at the world entirely afresh. Unlike those movies--or the recent, Expressionist CLEAN, SHAVEN--Dumont doesn't distort the physical world, make it elastic or dreamlike. But he somehow makes us feel the world is being recorded by a very wise child from another planet. Everything, absolutely everything, from human behavior to wind rippling over a field of grass, is seen as never before. Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new" is stamped on every frame.
Pharaon is a slow-witted police superintendent who is anything but pharaonic. He had a girlfriend and a baby, now dead. (We are not told how.) He is friends with Domino, a big-boned, sensitive, slatternly woman next door, and Joseph, her handsome beau, with whom she seems to never stop having sex. In their small town, a little girl has been raped and murdered. Pharaon pursues this case, as he pursues a sort of inarticulate love for Domino. Along the way, a light dawns in Pharaon--a dreadful light. He becomes sensitive to the suffering of all living things--a pig hurt by the suckling of her young, all the way to a motorist getting a beating outside police headquarters. The effect this has is to create a kind of moral schizophrenia in Pharaon: he can filter out nothing. Like an overlap of Raskolnikov and Prince Mishkin, Pharaon takes both the world's sin and sufferings on his back.
But this gives only the barest outline of the experience of L'HUMANITE, which is not about its plot. Indeed, the relationship of Dumont's handling of the materials of cinema to the story itself is unique in my experience of narrative moviemaking. Like Abbas Kiarostami in his recent work, Dumont uses the landscape not to illustrate the story, but to propose a dialectic against it. Where the landscape acts as an argument for life in Kiarostami's TASTE OF CHERRY, here it does something else. It vibrates with feeling. In its childlike gaze at the hardness of people and things, L'HUMANITE tries to get at the shifting feelings underneath--the emotions and sensations so elusive there are no words for them. The movie proves that literary means--finding names--are unnecessary. Dumont finds aural-visual-rhythmic means to voice those emotions.
His techniques can be daring, appalling. Pharaon, gradually overwhelmed by the world's thousand and one cruelties, starts to spontaneously embrace (relative) total strangers, in scenes one can imagine giving audiences giggles. Dumont doesn't care.
L'HUMANITE is the kind of movie that, while you're watching it, you feel can drive you crazy in places, but which you know you'll live with and re-play in your head for the rest of your life. And Cannes naysayers to the contrary, all the performances in this movie--all of them, down to the tiniest--are perfect.
A note: I would like to thank the other people who wrote about L'HUMANITE on IMDB. With no other movie have I felt I learned so much by reading other people's responses, and particularly noting the details they chose to underline. For the authenticity and unabashedness of everyone's responses, I am truly grateful.
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