HUMANITE

Written and directed by Bruno Dumont

With Emmanuel Schotté, Severine Caneele and Philippe Tullier

Distributed by WinStar

Opens in New York June 14th

***1/2



Since no one has yet offered me an all-expense-paid trip to Cannes or any other international film festival, I've only experienced the controversies raised by films like CRASH, FUNNY GAMES, ROSETTA and HUMANITE by proxy and months later when these films are finally released in the U.S. Awarded three prizes by the jury led by David Cronenberg at Cannes eleven months ago, HUMANITE was - to put it mildly - not well received by most of the American press. (In an attempt to prevent such adventurous decisions this year, the Cannes heads have appointed Luc Besson to head the jury.) An acquaintance who caught it at Cannes described it to me as a horribly botched Bresson imitation: a bad film, but a fascinating object to discuss. However, once it arrived at some of last fall's North American film festivals, the buzz began turning around. Now that I've seen it, I can testify that it's one more reason not to trust  the would-be gatekeepers of American film culture. While Owen Gleiberman has just proclaimed that Erick Zonca and Lars von Trier are the only two major foreign filmmakers have arrived in the past 10 years - one wonders if he knows that von Trier began working well before the 90s began - Dumont has gone ahead and made the kind of ambitious, difficult work that earned 60s European cinema its cachet. I don't begrudge Gleiberman his personal taste (even if I strongly disagree with it), but these kinds of narrow-minded declarations are a large part of the reason why companies like Miramax and Fine Line take so few chances with foreign films these days. Love or hate it, HUMANITE is no ordinary film, and  Americans are lucky to have a chance to see it  - even in an extremely narrow release - this summer.

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.