Although set in Bruno Dumont's home region of northern France, L'il Quinquin finds the writer-director in unexpected territory. The film is a arguably Dumont's first comedy, and was made as a four-part TV miniseries.
Yet with its relaxed pacing, inconclusive plot and elegant widescreen cinematography, the movie doesn't feel much like TV. And its humor is less a matter of overt gags than bemused attitude, which shows that the Dumont of Humanite and Hors Satan has barely relocated at all.
The story opens with mischievous Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), who looks to be around 10. He's named for a 19th-century song that's a sort of anthem for the remaining speakers of Picard, a vanishing language of the region. He sports a hearing aid and the sort of squashed, off-center nose usually seen only on boxers who've lost a few matches.
That schnoz is just the first of many remarkable physical characteristics. Dumont likes to work with nonprofessional actors, often cast for faces and bodies that exemplify human imperfection. This can verge on the exploitative, notably when the director employs (as he does here) people with obvious mental or neurological limitations.
The boy's nose also suggests the history of violence written everywhere on the local landscape. Quinquin and girlfriend Eve (Lucy Carron) play around the abandoned seaside bunkers of World War II, where the boy searches for leftover bullets and grenades. None of the latter seem to be live, but Quinquin compensates by always being well-supplied with firecrackers.
It's inside one of the bunkers that a dead cow is found, apparently stuffed with parts of a dismembered local resident. The carcass is lifted from the underground chamber by a helicopter, recalling the opening of La Dolce Vita, where an airborne statue of Jesus is flown out of Rome.
Enter Capt. Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), a police detective. He's a solemn yet silly figure, with a face for silent cinema. Rumpled and with ever-twitching eyebrows, Van der Weyden resembles a French Colombo, but without any hidden investigative acumen. He's accompanied by Lt. Carpentier (Philippe Jore), who's missing several prominent teeth.
Carpentier's abiding passion is getting his patrol car to travel on just two wheels. With his references to literature and painting, Van der Weyden seems the more refined of the two. But he gets people's attention by firing his gun randomly into the air, much as Quinquin startles bystanders with firecrackers.
The story peaks early, with the first homicide and its aftermath, a shambles of a funeral overseen by two inept priests while Quinquin, in altar boy robes, overdoes the incense. Rather than a funeral homily, the mourners hear an English-language pop song warbled by Eve's older sister, who aspires to TV-talent-show renown.
Bodies — both human and bovine, sometimes intermingled — continue to materialize, yet Van der Weyden can't discern the person or circumstance that connects them. Not that the stalled investigation is the cop's fault. Dumont clearly has no interest in a standard murder-mystery narrative or a tidy payoff. That's one reason L'il Quinquin has been likened to Twin Peaks.
Instead, Dumont stresses such quietly ridiculous details of local life as the importance of the marching band — Eve plays trumpet — and baton corps. More seriously, he turns his attention to racism and xenophobia: One of Quinquin's self-assigned tasks is terrorizing boys of Arab and African descent.
This is not funny stuff, but then Dumont isn't after the sort of laughter that makes viewers feel better. His idea of the human comedy remains as grim as it is absurd.