Review: Bruno Dumont’s “L’Humanité”


At the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, L’Humanité, along with the top prizewinner, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, was one of The Little French Films That Could, coming from seemingly out of nowhere to grab all of the top prizes. L’Humanité was quite controversial and unpopular at Cannes, and understandably so. Dumont’s film brazenly flies in the face of just about convention of storytelling, character, pacing, and mood we have been used to seeing in films. The basic skeleton of the film’s “plot” (in quotes for reasons that will soon be clear) is one we’ve seen in thousands of films: a police investigation of the rape and murder of a young girl (in this case, very young, about 11 or 12). This is a scenario which has just about been done to death, and the predictable outlines of this type of story are too familiar to even bother rehashing here. L’Humanité, far from being even a radical interpretation or variation on this tale, almost completely ignores the conventions altogether.

A brief description of the film’s opening, an arresting set of images, will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. The first image is a field, a high grassy hill. We hear footsteps on the soundtrack, but can’t tell where they’re coming from. After a couple of minutes, we see a tiny figure walking across the top of the hill; the camera rests, unmoving, until the man walks out of the frame. Cut to a close shot of the man walking, the camera following him closely. Suddenly, the man falls, hard. He lies on the ground, unmoving. Cut to a close-up of the man’s face, eyes staring blankly. At first, it looks as if he is dead, until we see he is breathing. Cut to the dead girl’s body, lying in the grass. Then an extreme close-up of the girl’s spread-eagled legs, the camera looking straight up into the girl’s vagina. Back to the man, who gets up, crawling on the ground. We think: is he the murderer? But then, he crawls over to a police car, opens the door, and speaks into the walkie-talkie, and we realize he is a cop. This is Dumont’s style: sharp, often raw images that force us to continually question what we are seeing. Just when we think we’ve caught on to a thread that will explain things, Dumont will throw an image at us that completely unsettles us. Dumont sustains this sense of ambiguity throughout the entire picture, quite a remarkable achievement.

Dumont also flouts the conventions of the police procedural by almost completely abandoning the investigation for over an hour, as we follow the daily life of the investigator, which oddly seems to consist of very little actual police work, other than a very cryptic scene early on at the police station where his boss chastises him for being out of it, and slacking off. The investigator, whose name we learn is Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotté), lives with his mother in a small house. We see minute, mundane details of his activities. He goes biking, eats an apple and nearly chokes on it, watches a soccer game. Dumont seems to almost perversely rob his story of any conventional action or suspense. Eventually, we see Pharaon interacting with a woman named Domino (Séverine Caneele) who lives a few doors down. Domino, not a particularly attractive woman in the conventional sense, works at a factory in town. It soon becomes clear that Pharaon is attracted to Domino. Domino, however, has a boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier), who visits frequently. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Domino and Joseph engage in rough and extremely vigorous sex, while Pharaon watches them outside her open bedroom door. Domino seems to have genuine affection for Pharaon, and often invites him along on her dates with Joseph, who puts up with Pharaon for Domino’s sake, but treats him with barely concealed contempt. We are given very little information about these characters. For example, we learn that Pharaon “lost” his wife and daughter some years ago, but exactly what happened to them is never explained.


The performances in the film are quite unusual. It’s almost a misnomer to term what we see in this film “acting.” What Schotté, especially, does in this film seems too raw, too naked, too unpolished to be termed acting, at least in the normal sense. Schotté retains a wide-eyed, penetrating stare throughout the film, like an overgrown child. In fact, we wonder if his character is slow, or even slightly mentally retarded. And if so, how does someone such as this become a police superintendent? Such speculations, however, soon become increasingly unimportant. I interpret this character as an empath, someone who seemingly feels all of the world’s pain, to the extent that it may have wrecked his own mental health. The film’s title clues us in to the purpose of Pharaon’s character. We are meant to see him as a representative of humankind itself, in all its mystery, its ambiguity, its sexiness, its kindness, its evil. Pharaon, whose guilelessness and naked displays of emotion invite us to see him as a completely open book, nevertheless retains an unfathomable inner core. Dumont offers in L’Humanitéan unflinching, unsettling look at people that we can believe actually exist. They are not forced to fit into pre-molded boxes, or packaged to be attractive people we can vicariously pretend to be. In a way, we are forced to look at ourselves and question our own knowledge of what we are. It is as if the film’s nominal subject, the rape/murder investigation, is only a red herring to bait us into this questioning of ourselves.


The film’s visual style perfectly matches its philosophy. Yves Cape’s beautiful widescreen photography and the sharp, precise editing by Guy Lecorne effectively illustrate the tension between the beauty of the landscape and the evil that occurs within it. There is an earthiness and rawness to the images that key in perfectly to Dumont’s themes. Pharaon’s face in the dirt, the dead little girl, Domino’s rough sex: Dumont practically rubs our face in the fact that these are all aspects of, and inseparable from, the “humanity” of the film’s title. The images provocatively link sex and death, but never in a pretentious or heavy-handed way. Dumont in this film (even more so than the more overtly religious La Vie de Jésus) proves himself to be a worthy cinematic heir to Robert Bresson, making a similar use of Bresson’s signature use of nonactors, direct sound, lack of music, and themes of transcendence and grace, despite certain major differences between the two in their approaches. Appropriately for a film that so sublimely uses its indelible images to tell its story, L’Humanité contains all its themes within its first image: the tiny figure walking on the hill. That figure is all of us: ultimately alone, surrounded by a vast landscape, a universe that, with our limited senses, we can hardly hope to completely understand.