Written and directed by Bruno Dumont
With Emmanuel Schotté, Severine Caneele and Philippe Tullier
Distributed by WinStar
Opens in New York June 14th
Despite a premise that could have come out of any number of cheap detective novels or movies-of-the-week, HUMANITE concentrates far more on character than plot. Its protagonist is Pharaon de Winter (Schotté), a small-town police detective who lives with his mother. Since his girlfriend and child died two years ago, he's been extremely lonely and unable to connect with other people, although he tries his hardest with next-door neighbor Domino (Caneele). Although clearly attracted to her, he seems content just to hang out with her and her obnoxious boyfriend Joseph (Tullier). On top of all this baggage, he's called to investigate the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose corpse is discovered in a field.
If HUMANITE could be boiled down to its essence, that essence would
be the face of Emmanuel Schotté. Dumont's consistently inventive
framing of his non-professional cast leads to a real freshness. The three
leads all convey the kind of un-glamorous awkwardness that exists so often
in real life but doesn't translate well to film. Along with Caneele, Schotté
won an acting prize at Cannes, a move which infuriated the film's detractors.
Their complaint that Schotté was basically playing himself - as
his appearance at the Cannes awards ceremony, displaying the exact mannerisms
he showed in the film, suggested - may be true, but it doesn't matter.
His screen presence is every bit as exhilarating as Julia Roberts' brassy
confidence in ERIN BROCKOVICH. At first, Schotté reminded
me of the nervous tics of Andy Kaufman's Eastern European persona, but
he eventually reveals himself as an amazingly expressive performer, if
not a particularly versatile one.
His bugged-out eyes, dazed and deeply anguished, are as haunting as any pair I've seen onscreen, and his performance harkens back to the high points of silent cinema. With little dialogue (most of it consisting of banal small talk), his face and body speak for him.
Bruno Dumont's debut film, THE LIFE OF JESUS, combined a social realist portrait of unemployed racist French youth with a nod to Bressonian spirituality, but HUMANITE pushes society further into the background and the Big Important Themes forward. I'm sure this is one reason it's pissed so many people off: the severity and rigor of filmmakers like Bergman, Dreyer and Tarkovsky has fallen out of fashion. (Dumont's 'Scope landscapes owe so much to Tarkovsky that I kept expecting a 5-minute tracking shot of someone walking across a field.) Even if most serious cinephiles and critics admire them, few young filmmakers show much interest in continuing their tradition. If anything, HUMANITE strikes me as less pretentious than some of these reference points: unlike some Bergman and Tarkovsky films, it avoids heavy-handed dialogue about spirituality and morality.
If A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE hadn't already been taken, it would be a perfect title for HUMANITE, the best film about innocence since BREAKING THE WAVES. Its story comes down to one basic situation: a group of people suddenly discover the existence of evil in their midst. Among Dumont's many debts to Bresson is his tendency to unite the physical and metaphysical. He never shows violence onscreen, but he introduces of the corpse through a close-up of her bloody vagina so appalling and startling that I didn't register it for several seconds. In THE LIFE OF JESUS, Dumont included extreme close-ups of actual penetration to emphasize the animal nature of the act, and he treats sex much the same way (albeit without the penetration) here. Domino and Joseph have several explicit sex scenes (one of which Winter watches), while Winter seems strangely asexual and childlike. However, despite the Christian references in Dumont's films, he doesn't contrast the supposed purity of spirit (represented by Winter) and filth of the body (represented by Domino). Even if Winter never has sex, his yearning for physical connection comes through in other ways. Although he snaps back at his mother when she insults Domino, he rarely speaks his mind; instead, he communicates mostly through touch.
I consider the scene towards the end of EXOTICA in which Bruce
Greenwood decides to hug Elias Koteas rather than shooting him one of the
most sublime and cathartic moments ever filmed, but it drew laughter from
audiences I saw it with in 1995. I can only imagine what those gigglers
will make of HUMANITE, a film as compassionate and vulnerable as its hero.
If one isn't patient with both, they probably look absurd. (A few critics
have even suggested that Winter is retarded.)
For all its accomplishments, it occasionally looks absurd to me, especially when Winter suddenly levitates in his garden. The ending, as ambiguous as its moving, is likely to provoke as many arguments as the "redemptions" that closed BREAKING THE WAVES and BAD LIEUTENANT. But who needs instant certainty about every element of a film in order to value it? Maybe Pauline Kael, but not me. Perfection can be suffocating, and HUMANITE, even with all its imperfections, is the most vital film to turn up so far this year.