Li’l Quinquin is a milestone achievement for writer-director Bruno Dumont, whose typically austere mediations on people in the midst of moral and existential uncertainty have given way to absurdist underpinnings that have always been nascent in the filmmaker’s work, but never explicitly actualized. Outwardly, Li’l Quinquin resembles a satirical treatise of self-reflection, functioning simultaneously as a summation of Dumont’s thematic interests over the previous two decades and as a bonkers remake of his breakout 1999 film Humanité. Yet neither tract quite works for categorizing the film, since its sensibilities consistently finagle their way free from reductive classifications. Originally aired as a four-part miniseries, the film is divided into four chapters and follows two storylines throughout, both set on the outskirts of Boulogne in northern France: the rambunctious, if borderline criminal, activities of Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) and an inept police investigation headed by Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore). The latter two are investigating a series of murders, in which victims have been dismembered and stuffed inside cows, each of which has been left in desolate locations throughout the countryside.
Yet the basic narrative is merely a placeholder for Dumont to weave an intricate web of curiously farcical sequences in which characters are incapable of traversing either generational or ideological gaps in order to compromise with one another. Quinquin raises hell with his friends, who light firecrackers and ride their bikes in the streets, much to the dismay of der Weyden, who yells from his police car about “traffic codes” while Carpentier floors it to their next stop for the investigation. Dumont makes the two officers thoroughly cartoonish, as Pruvost’s bushy eyebrows and constantly contorting facial expressions and Jore’s toothless grin and perpetual befuddlement seem yanked from Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther and implanted into Dumont’s realm of punishing sociological forces. If the murders are “the heart of evil,” as der Weyden claims, he and Carpentier have no capacity to theorize beyond naming what such a locus entails. As der Weyden says to Carpentier early on: “We’re not here to philosophize.”
Thankfully, Dumont is, and once all of the film’s pieces have been introduced nearly halfway through, it’s clear that everything about Li’l Quinquin is rigidly philosophical. In fact, the film is in many ways a thematic continuation of Dumont’s woefully underpraised Camille Claudel 1915, in that it effectively questions religious and moral conviction when faced with evidence of bodily or mental deformity, whether through intellectual development disorder or psychological deterioration. Dumont lingers on faces in close-up, such that even a scene where Quinquin simply teases his girlfriend, Eve (Lucy Carron), from afar is made devastating by her amused, affectionate reaction, isolated in the shot. Faces are everything for Dumont: gateways to the soul, even when those faces are bereft of expression, like that of cow owner Mr. Lebleu (Stéphane Boutillier), whose tilted head is consistently captured wide-eyed, mouth agape, and to startling effect.
Further examples abound, but most important is Dany (Jason Cirot), Quinquin’s mentally handicapped uncle, who roams around the countryside with minimal tabs kept on him, except when a local bully causes him to fall down. Dumont has always placed typically taboo or unsightly cinematic faces at the fore, daring viewers to laugh or snicker at their expressions. Think of the O-face motif in Twentynine Palms, which is made shockingly violent by the film’s end. A similar horror persists here, though like in Camille Claudel 1915, that horror derives from primordial essences rather than rational explanations. When language breaks down, the face is all that remains.
Yet Dumont has never been this blatantly off-the-rails; when Quinquin asks his pappy (Lucien Chaussoy) whether it would be possible to stuff a human being inside a cow’s ass, he responds: “Cows go inside a barn.” Tonally, the film makes nothing of the collapsed exchange, but its significance is implicit when understood in direct comparison to other sequences, namely a funeral that’s as much a tour de force of scathing irreverence as anything in Dumont’s oeuvre. As an organist mashes the keys with fervor more fitting a concert than a time of mourning, Quinquin smokes a cigarette out back with one of the fathers, while der Weyden scours the church for suspects. Dumont plays the sequence with Buñuelian flair, thoroughly lambasting the waywardly broken ritual, but intimating the functions of religious ceremony to be little more than a series of jingling bells and musical serenade. In one of the film’s most haunting through lines, an aspiring pop singer (Lisa Hartmann) performs a song as a eulogy, which she later performs again during a local competition, with hopes of appearing on TV. The funeral is a space to build a following, no different than the county fair, which for Dumont signals a humorous, but potentially dangerous collapse between physical (local) and mediated (global) resonances.
The dynamic between local and global slowly transpires throughout the film in other ways, particularly Quinquin’s racist hatred for Mohamed (Baptiste Anquez), whose presence infuriates Quinquin out of a basic xenophobia that Dumont renders along gender lines, so that their initial rift involves Quinquin’s claiming of two white girls Mohamed talks to at a local bumper-car arena. Yet Dumont allows these tensions to boil into explicitly religious conflicts, with the film’s final chapter, titled “Allah Akbar,” hinging upon Mohamed’s violent actions as a consequence of being consistently “othered” by Quinquin and his friends.
Through these various chess pieces, Dumont reveals his interest in the ways both ideology and cinema are necessarily predicated on fine lines separating polarities, where religious ritual melds with pop fodder and austere drama quickly gives way to slapstick shenanigans. Most impressive, then, is that all of the principal characters are first-time actors, with Dumont finding Bressonian inspiration amid Pasolinian grotesqueries. There’s an epitomizing scene early on in which Quinquin is told by one of the church’s fathers that “children are our only hope.” Der Weyden, listening nearby, shouts in response: “Hope my ass!” Such an incendiary moment amid Dumont’s monumental tapestry of humanist frustrations is staggering and condensed in such a precise manner, that it’s hard not to understand Li’l Quinquin as a potential apotheosis for European art cinema.