Bruno Dumont’s latest film (technically a French TV mini-series presented as one long film) is like Twin Peaks mixed with all the good elements from Gummo, set in rural northern France. In Li’l Quinquin we follow two detectives (“Van der Weyden” & “Carpentier”) trying to catch a sadistic serial killer preying on the residents of a small town. If you’re a fan of David Lynch, Harmony Korine and golden-era Second City TV and/or Kids In The Hall sketches and just random surreal dry humor, then this is a film for you. Within the first few minutes of this movie we’re presented with a scene of a dead cow being air-lifted by a helicopter from an empty field with confused locals looking on. To some people that comes off like typical art house nonsense while to others (like myself) it’s intriguing & beautiful imagery (we later come to discover that cows play a fairly important role in the story).
The big draw of this film is that this is Bruno Dumont’s first official comedy. There’s certainly plenty of awkward moments in some of Dumont’s previous work that’ll make you snicker from time to time, but he’s usually quite dark (if you’d like to get familiar with his previous films before continuing on with this review, read some of my older write-ups like Camille Claudel, Hors Satan & Humanite). This is Bruno’s first film that won’t make you feel guilty about laughing out loud at the characters. For those of you that aren’t too familiar with Bruno’s filmography, he often casts non-professional actors with some type of physical disability, some kind of natural awkward mannerism or facial “imperfection” (when compared to an average leading man or leading lady) that you can’t help but notice and, depending on how vein you are, possibly snicker at. Casting “homely” looking lead actors is clearly Dumont challenging the viewer’s perception of what “beauty” on the big screen is. He does this in almost every single movie and Li’l Quinquin is no exception. For example – one of the lead actors has uncontrollable non-stop facial ticks, but when combined with his bushy Groucho Marx eyebrows & Charlie Chaplin-esque mustache (“Detective Van Der Weyden” pictured above on the right) you can’t help but laugh at him (he walks funny, says random nonsensical things and tries to be cool in certain situations yet it really doesn’t work).
But no matter how funny Li’l Quinquin may be, Dumont doesn’t suppress his dark side (in case you missed my brief synopsis earlier, this “comedy” does revolve around a serial killer who disposes of his victims in extremely fucked up ways). And in all honesty, there’s absolutely no trace humor in the last 45-60 minutes of this movie (I would like to go on record and say that this movie features quite possibly the most awkward/cringeworthy/hilarious funeral scene in modern cinema).
The longer this epic story goes on (clocking in at just under 3-1/2 hours), the less it becomes about the murders & who did it, and more about the quirky characters that live in the nameless northern French town where the story takes place. The older generation of residents are set in their ways (the men farm & do manual labor in an almost mechanical way, while the women cook & take care of the children). The younger residents of the town (pictured above) are bored, precocious & bigoted/racist as they aren’t too familiar the multicultural world outside of their Anglo-heavy small town (throughout the film the younger characters always spew racial slurs at the few African & Arab characters for almost no reason). If I’m not mistaken, this is actually Bruno Dumont’s first time touching on the issue of race in nearly two decades of filmmaking.
The collection of quirky characters in this movie is why the Twin Peaks comparison makes so much sense to me. Sure the tag line for David Lynch’s short-lived TV show was; “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”, but after a while we forgot about that. The show was filled with so many colorful & offbeat characters that we didn’t want to know who killed Laura because we wanted to get to know the people of Twin Peaks more. And the more we got to know all the supporting characters, the more we discovered how interconnected everyone & everything was. The same thing applies to Li’l Quinquin. As the investigation progresses we learn that the victims were connected to each other on multiple levels and we eventually come to find out that some of the supporting characters, who look like extras from the movie Gummo, are related to each other directly by blood yet tried to keep it a secret for decades.
Putting aside the David Lynch/Harmony Korine comparison, Bruno Dumont also references his own work. Besides keeping up tradition of always showing that signature shot of his characters embracing one another in a similar fashion…
He also draws inspiration from his older films in terms of plot – The theme of bored rural teens was explored in The Life Of Jesus (1997) & Flanders (2006); the idea of a quirky/slightly “off” police detective investigating a gruesome murder comes from Humanite (1999); the theme of the devil/pure evil in human form was explored in Hors Satan (2011) as well as amazing unexplainable feats happening out of nowhere. In Hors Satan, one of the lead characters comes back to life after being pronounced dead for quite some time. In Li’l Quinquin, there’s a scene where a little boy pretending to be a superhero suddenly climbs up a wall like spider man, yet he doesn’t have any super powers. To be honest – Li’l Quinquin almost feels like an extension/non-related sequel to Hors Satan.
Dumont also branched out to non-cinematic sources for inspiration. The opening scene of the cow being lifted in the air looks like a Salvador Dali painting come to life. Actually, the constant presence of cows throughout the film reminded me of Dali’s work in general…
It should also be noted that this is Bruno Dumont’s least Bresson-influenced work, which is a major accomplishment in my opinion (it’s almost impossible to read a review of one of his films and not see Bresson’s name dropped at least once).
Like any recent film by Bruno Dumont, I enjoyed this very much and it’ll probably end up in my top 10 of this year (under the “frustrating yet rewarding” category). But it’s not without a few potential flaws. Putting my own personal preferences aside, this film has a lot of moments with little to no dialogue between the characters (a Dumont signature) which some might find “boring” or slow. The last third of the story does drag a little bit and new subplots develop that might distract you from the “meat” of the story. And like always, I’m sure there’s a handful of critics who will accuse Dumont of exploiting or poking fun at his non-proffesional actors (personally I don’t think he does but an argument can be made).
If you have the patience and are familiar with his previous work, I highly recommend checking this out. If not, I’d watch some of his earlier (…and shorter) films (specifically Humainte or The Life Of Jesus) before delving in to this.
This article originally appeared on Pinnland Empire in its full length. Check out Pinnland Empire for more great essays from Marcus Pinn.