HUMANITY (Bruno Dumont, 1999)

Bruno Dumont’s Humanity (L’humanité) is one of the great films having to do with crime detection and, for me, the greatest film from France since Robert Bresson’s L’argent (Money). It’s good to mention Dumont and Bresson in the same breath, since Dumont, as his The Life of Jesus (1997) has already shown, borrows his style in large measure from that of France’s most highly individualistic filmmaker. And now the measure holds gravitas and depth.

Bresson died at age 98 in 1999. His films—among them, The Diary of a Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1966), The Devil, Probably (1977), L’argent (1983)—are at once matter-of-fact and transcendental, manifesting the ordinary materiality of our world while implying a kind of grace, accessible through this materiality, that, without their knowledge or consent, guides certain individuals, including criminals and victims, abusers and the abused, to their redemption. Viewers who aren’t devout, who believe in God only as metaphor, should not hesitate, much less fear to apply to this cinema of his. Bresson is no more or less a moralist or a religionist than Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer or Alfred Hitchcock, all of whom also have influenced Dumont’s work; Bresson’s humanism runs at least as deep as Godard’s, and possibly as deep as Renoir’s or Rossellini’s. (The latter’s work is another influence on Dumont’s). Moreover, Bresson flatly rejected the designation of Jansenist that was often applied to him and his work.

Bresson’s style, as it evolved over a forty-year career, is highly distinctive. It’s spare—some would say, bare—and intense. Bresson’s scenes arrange themselves into a thematic revelation rather than, strictly speaking, a story; Bresson’s theme always drives the narrative, not the other way around. His scenes, therefore, can be very short, elliptical, elusive. Because his subject is humanity, the camera finds profound and frequent interest in the human face; because humanity, for Bresson, is inseparable from spirituality, the style of his films repeatedly places the impermanence of people in context of something permanent and, also, implacable. One characteristic element of this method is to show rooms, for a heartbeat, prior to when characters walk into them, and to keep showing them, for a heartbeat, after all characters have left. For Bresson, since spirit infuses everything, even materiality yields spirituality.

Beginning with The Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson eschewed using professional actors; he found nonprofessionals better suited his aim to disclose the secrets of ordinary humanity that most fascinated him. One of his nonprofessionals, though, subsequent to her brilliant performance in his Une femme douce (1969), became afterwards one of the world’s greatest stars, with a yet ongoing career: Dominique Sanda. Others, like Claude Laydu, Bresson’s country priest, failed in their attempt to find acting careers.

Humanity, like Dumont’s previous Life of Jesus, is Bressonian in all the ways I have described. Humanity might also have been titled The Life of Jesus insofar as, in it, ordinary humanity manifests the spirit of that particular life in order to retain humanity in the face of the extraordinary objections that the world raises. These objections, alas, also come from humanity.

One “objection” is cold-blooded rape and murder. An eleven-year-old girl, dropped off by her country school bus and on her way home, is raped and killed; the force of the intrusion shreds her vagina. None of this do we see. Very, very briefly—the few seconds, however, seem an eternity—we see the aftermath. Not the child’s face; everything else. (It is the living who have faces.) What we do see is the long investigation of the most heartrending crime I can imagine.

Not just I. The small town police superintendent who, along with the police chief, investigates isn’t cool and just-the-facts-Ma’m by-the-book. He is deeply affected by the crime. Two years earlier he lost both girlfriend and baby in a road accident. He suffers lost children; he embraces humanity and feels complicit in the suffering of the rest of humanity. So does Bruno Dumont. The film largely unfolds in Bailleul, the northern town in France where Dumont himself comes from. Pharaon De Winter, one of the most fascinating detectives of all time, could be Dumont.

Yes, De Winter is unorthodox. He sniffs a suspect. He “inappropriately” hugs and kisses both suspects and others his path crosses in the performance of his police work. And he isn’t above suspicion himself. He is sexually frustrated in the extreme. A grown man, he lives with his mother. He has a temper. He throws himself on the ground sobbing before an official report of the crime even reaches him. Half the time he seems close to being slow-witted, dull, dense. Like the rest of us.

Reviews I have read suggest that Pharaon doesn’t solve the crime. Certainly he takes no credit for doing so. When at last he confronts the contrite confessed killer he remarks, “Surely it isn’t you.” And, in a way, it isn’t. It could be any one of us, including Pharaon himself. But in his seemingly retarded way it is Pharaon who has moved the investigation along to the point that the identity of the killer becomes manifest, when the killer must reveal himself. This is his humanity; however, it’s also his way of playing God. For Pharaon, since there is no possibility of glory in raping, murdering and mutilating a child, neither is there glory in solving such a heinous crime. This, too, is Pharaon’s humanity. He does his job in such a way as to allow others to take credit; but he does his job. With all his heart he does his job. We figure out the crime ourselves; given our grasp of human psychology, we do this fairly easily. But, somehow, Dumont has devised his film so that we feel much the same way that Pharaon does. The final revelation that we are right adds nothing to our sense of our own virtue or cleverness. We remain overwhelmed by the crime. We are steeped in our awareness of the victim’s extreme pain and terror, and of her loss of life, and of the monumental sadness that has touched so many lives as a result. Like Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) and Chabrol’s Le boucher (1969), Humanity is the rare crime-centered film to put us in touch with our humanity.

Because Pharaon De Winter brings all of himself to his work, the film gives great detail about him. For one thing, he lives in a row house that cramps his humanity; his outlet is his “allotment,” the tiny patch of land where he grows gorgeous flowers as a respite from town life and from the case he is working on. While the police chief interviews someone involved in the case, Pharaon retreats to the barn, where he strokes a nursing pig affectionately. He often takes to looking at the sky (as did Frédéric, in The Life of Jesus), as if in a contented trance. Pharaon also is in love, with his neighbor, Domino, who herself has a boyfriend, Joseph, a school bus driver in the grip of a rage against children. One morning Domino leaves her door open; Pharaon cannot help but look in and watch, transfixed, as Domino and Joseph make love on the floor. Pharaon would do anything to pry Domino from Joseph, whose crudity sometimes delights him but more often disgusts him. Pharaon is not a perfect soul; when his moment of sexual appropriation comes, as we know it will, it chills to the bone.

Pharaon and Joseph could be twins, except that one is in poor shape physically while the other is buff. Like Sam Loomis and Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), they look very much alike, especially in profile, and several shots pointing to the resemblance impose a kind of mutual identity on the two men. Domino, whom they share, although only Joseph is sexually intimate with her, assists in this identification. (In the Hitchcock film, the two characters “share” Marion Crane, one sexually, one nonsexually.) It is Joseph who eventually confesses to the rape and murder of the child. He may even have committed the crime; certainly his remorse escapes ambiguity. Or has Pharaon himself had a hand in willing Joseph to the act? For, in some sense, they are accomplices, the guilt and confession of one temporarily purging the other of the need to commit the same, or a similar, crime. Pharaon consoles the confessed killer, even kissing him on the mouth—even in the mouth. Then Pharaon, coldly, pushes Joseph away; he will have no more to do with Joseph, ever. For the moment, Pharaon is purged of his identification with the dark side of humanity.

Off-screen, Pharaon tells Domino what Joseph has done; we are left to interpolate this. What we see, as Pharaon sits opposite her, is Domino cry. (Only one other time, and then only briefly, do we see Domino inside Pharaon’s home.) Domino has lost her man. The man who did this to a child was in her, too, that same day. Dumont, uncharacteristically, lets the scene of her breakdown go on and on so that we can take in all that Domino is feeling. She feels abandoned, cheated, violated. We are reminded of Claire’s breakdown in Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970). It is Pharaon’s moment of sexual appropriation and, if not evil, it is close to evil. Here he is awesome in the way that he knowingly plays God.

Dumont’s film took three prizes at Cannes: the Grand Prix, and Best Actor and Best Actress for Emmanuel Schotté and Séverine Caneele who, with searing beauty and truthfulness, play Pharaon and Domino. The acting prizes, to two nonprofessionals, needless to say generated some controversy. Even more was generated by Humanity’s winning the Grand Prix. The point of controversy: the film’s graphic depictions of sex and violence. Again, as much violence as there is lasts only a few seconds and doesn’t involve any attempt to show the act—a degree of restraint unusual nowadays. Now the sex: it’s essential to Dumont’s understanding of the desperately lonely lives he is interested in. In The Life of Jesus, Frédéric’s adolescent sex is shown as his, for all intents and purposes, merely masturbating into his girlfriend. Frédéric relates to his girlfriend not at all, and she is utterly passive. Sex between Joseph and Domino—and here, at least, there is a between—is the adult version. I would describe it as consensual rape. In both cases, the males are killers, unable to be properly social and to contain their demons. One is a xenophobic bigot who feels cheated of his birthright as white and French; the other hates children for the possibility that their lives hold that his own life, he feels, has been cheated of. Both are bitter, angry.

How these men make love, no matter how unpleasant to look at, suggests much about them in a breathtakingly brief time. In one scene, the couple is at the edge of her bed; Domino is “seated,” her buttocks barely supported by the mattress, while Joseph is inside her. Literally, Domino is held in place solely by the force of the sex. The sex Dumont shows, in context, shows Joseph’s reduced humanity—and perhaps Domino’s willingness to participate in this reduction and in her own.

When he looks in at Domino and Joseph on the floor, is Pharaon remembering himself with the mother of his child? Does he perhaps know that he is watching a killer and the killer’s enabler? What do we know as we look in? The moment comes early in the film. It remains for our complicity and Pharaon’s to play out, as we ourselves, along with Dumont, look deeper and deeper into the social mirror in front of us. Even our inhumanity is part of our humanity.




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