P’tit Quinquin. Four-episode TV mini-series and feature film (Bruno Dumont, France 2014. Created, written and directed by Bruno Dumont. Cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaine / Edited by Basile Belkhiri & Bruno Dumont / Produced by Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Brehat & Muriel Merlin. Starring Baptiste Anquez, Julien Bodard, Stephane Boutillier, Lucy Caron, Corentin Carpentier, Alane Delhaye, Lisa Hartmann, Philippe Jore, Philippe Peuvion, Bernard Pruvost, Celine Sauvage.
On the face of it, Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin is an absurdist crime caper and police procedural, humorous, quirky and plain daft in places, peopled with wacky adults and endearing children during an idyllic summer in coastal Normandy. So far, so good. But the beast lurks beneath the skin and Dumont, never one to give us an easy ride, distils an infernal allegory about French life which leaves us reeling.
The director of the TV mini-series P’tit Quinquin (2014), Bruno Dumont, is a byword for gloom, a word we usually reserve for daunting emotional scenarios we have trouble coming to terms with, for dramas that do not have a happy ending, for stories of powerlessness without redemption. Dumont keeps good company with other exemplars including Joachim Lafosse, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, Francois Ozon, all given to presenting extreme emotional challenges. Indeed, film dramas without redemption may not be as common as we think (something that is certainly true of grand opera) and it’s by no means certain in any case that Dumont fits the all-round gloomy ticket; one thinks particularly of his Hadewijch (2009) with its powerful redemptive ending. Nevertheless, it is perhaps with a sigh of relief that we greet the aggregated episodes of Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin, an absurdist crime caper and police procedural, humorous, quirky and plain daft in places, peopled with wacky adults and endearing children during an idyllic summer in coastal Normandy, the quintessence of rural French life with more than a nod to the loony idylls of Jacques Tati.
Seemingly free of sombre Dumontian meditations, we look forward to a juicy murder mystery with its refreshingly high body-count. So far, so good. But the beast lurks beneath the skin and Dumont distils an infernal allegory about French life which leaves us reeling. For the canny observer, the disquiet is there from the start, in the title of the first TV episode, ‘The Human Beast’ (and with a growing sense of dismay, we get ‘The Heart of Evil’ and ‘The Devil Incarnate’ and, finally, the enigmatic ’Allahu Akbar’—‘God is greater … greatest’). Not surprisingly, the sinister, muted undertone starts to get rather loud. As in Twin Peaks: Firewalk With Me (1992), where a bizarre police procedural soon tips over into the revelation of fundamental criminality that can only be resolved metaphysically, in P’tit Quinquin we are similarly taken for a ride into unknown country—unless we want the crimes to be solved so much that we miss the essence of an allegory unfolding under our noses (a sort of reversal of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth , where the allure of the supernatural is contradicted by the dullest of facts, only we don’t want to see it).
The titles of the episodes denote a hell on earth and provide the key to the alarming disorder all about. Dumont’s meaning is very clear metaphysically and the basic message is reinforced constantly by the apparently bumbling, eccentric comments uttered by Police Commandant Van der Weyden, a sort of goggle-eyed Einstein with a marvellous repertoire of facial tics, a shoulder-shrugging routine which goes way beyond the elementary ‘Bof!’ shrug, and a silly walk which was probably very hard to cultivate. Implacably opposed to the Dantean vision of Van der Weyden is his natural enemy, a quintessential representative of the Volk, the eponymous P’tit Quinquin, a little boy whose misshapen visage carries a bleak, panoramic wisdom beyond its years—a face capable of expressing love and joy, certainly, but also a sneering violence and hatred. It is this unflinching, all-seeing gaze of Quinquin’s that sets the film in motion, and upon whose exemplar shore Van der Weyden’s critical wave inevitably must crash. In a strange adaptation of David Lynch’s method in Firewalk With Me, it is the panoramic, perceptive eye of the true detective that penetrates the outer landscape of mayhem and crime and discovers greater horrors lurking beneath. What throws us off constantly is the seeming extraordinary ineptitude of Van der Weyden, socially, physically, forensically (‘lab work is all’). Yet he is the man that sees all and bears the burden of the suppuration beneath (the lonely vision of Rimbaud’s: ‘J’ai seul le clef de cette parade sauvage’).
Following the introductory lidless gaze of P’tit Quinquin which surveys all, the scene shifts to a huge wartime coastal bunker, the hideout of local kids, from the inside of which, in a bizarre echo of the Christ-statue sequence opening Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), a police helicopter winches up a dead cow containing human remains. The bunker and other coastal defences still contain the explosive detritus of the Normandy landings (P’tit Quinquin plays unnervingly with unexploded hand grenades and live bullets) and is a relic of a terrible European and world war which continues to be celebrated through ceremonies expressing an uneasy mixture of respect for the fallen and the perpetuation of an uncomfortable patriotism. Central to the film is a marching band and majorette troupe which are part of the Bastille Day honouring the fallen from two world wars. In a get-together afterwards, a group of veterans is lamenting the decline in its numbers. Van der Weyden reminds them that total war will produce plenty of new veterans soon enough. Affronted by this bizarre man and his unthinkable truth, the veterans shrink from him in an appalled perplexity.
Throughout the film, the bunker recurs as a place of secretive, inexplicable movements which only occasionally promise revelations, the evident impossibility of figuring out how the cow got into the bunker part of the conundrum. Even more perplexing is how and why the human remains got into the cow, and subsequent explanations regarding ingestion (anal or oral, a result of mad-cow disease, etc) do not ring true. The scene is set for further murders, at least one of which involves the eating of a person by an animal, emblematic of a reversal of natural dominance or, in the case of the ingesting cows, representing a chaotic contradiction.
The Commandant stumbles upon a decades-long secret family feud of obscure origin, and on which the murders appear to centre. P’tit Quinquin’s father fell out years ago with his brother’s family and when the brother, Mr Lebleu, is murdered, Van der Weyden in his ostensibly bumbling way, teases out sharply the monumentality of the festering discord. The ironclad family battle lines and the lifetime of waste they represent hardly paint a picture of healthy, bucolic French rural life, and begin to crystallize a mood of sadness and waste which progressively eats into the drama; the lives of these farming families are bleak and joyless enough without the need for corrosive feuding. In the meantime, the infernal circle of death widens to involve the leader of the local cheerleader troupe and a local Muslim called Mr Bhiri. Van der Weyden is quick to lay bare the pattern of murderous adultery permeating the town, whilst failing to clinch any motive. Inexorably, we move further away from murder and closer to the subterranean, bunker-like levels of dark truths lying beneath the sun-drenched tranquillity of the town.
By this time, we are thoroughly acquainted with P’tit Quinquin and his pals—a couple of lads who do his bidding and a quiet, intense girlfriend, Eve, from another farming family. She clings to Quinquin, is entirely passive around him, and serves as an occasional butt for his mockery. Eve knows her place. The gang steps up its harassment of two Muslim boys, children of Mr Bhiri, who have been branded as the enemy, and moves from taunts to more determined violence against them. In the meantime, Eve’s elder sister Aurelie aspires to be a singer and to fly the coop. Thoughtful and sad, Aurelie at one point walks with the elder of the two Bhiri boys called Mohamed, who propositions her. The encounter is snuffed out as the couple reaches a bus stop, where a friend of Aurelie’s utters a string of offensive racial slurs against Mohamed and drives him off. Like her little sister Eve, Aurelie has no stomach for opposing racism when she encounters it; she sticks with her taciturn sadness, and Mohamed suffers perhaps his last devastating rejection through her passivity. Mohamed snaps, puts his faith in the mantra of the greater God (’Allahu Akbar’) and starts shooting, finally turning his gun on himself. In a moment of brave concern, Van der Weyden dodges the bullets and brings out the boy’s lifeless body in his arms, mutely witnessing the senseless of racism. Her sadness now melancholic, Aurelie surrenders to her own bizarre extermination.
There is more, much more, to add to the bonfire of vanities and human frailty that we and the Commandant witness. Van der Weyden’s sidekick Charpentier rolls the boss around in a nippy little police car, and is the worst of pyrotechnic drivers whilst dishing out road-safety advice to the kids. There are also absurd scenes in the venerable parish church at the funeral of the first victim, one of Lebleu’s adulterous girlfriends. The unholy gang of P’tit Quinquin as the altar boy, a dotty verger (the butt of homophobia), an idiotic novice and an incompetent parish priest administer hilariously to the congregation as Van der Weyden scrutinizes the scene with his goggling eagle eye; madcap humour becomes savage satire. P’tit Quinquin has a disabled brother called Dany who roams through the countryside and knows the hidden passages of the bunker—and upon whom our eyes alight reassuringly as a possible loose-cannon suspect (Dumont serves up other suspects, too, to meet our craving for closure). P’tit Quinquin also has a little pal who dresses up as a manic Spiderman worthy of Calvin and Hobbes and bashes around the farmyard—a place where Quinquin, with a calculated carelessness, throws down his bike with idle contept. Human movements are deranged, chaotic and unpredictable, a bodily expression of social dysfunction, which Van der Weyden himself shares. Slivers of clues turn out to be will o’ the wisps, as we struggle to understand what we are dealing with. Van der Weyden alone opposes P’tit Quinquin’s defiance and disorder, an implacable opponent of the emblematic hatred in the boy (Carpentier’s apologia for xenophobia is that boys will be boys). We also see a tender side of the Commandant and a lusty one too as he attempts to recall Rubens as the creator of ample women and loveable, magnificent horses. It is hard to do justice to the breadth and depth of Dumont’s allegory and the whimsical ways in which he achieves a serious ends, whilst the coastal scenery and town blanket in their summer heat a mire of tradition and social inertia. (Dumont has a way of encapsulating meaning through the luminosity of landscape, reminiscent of similarly rich symbolic backdrops in films like Baran Bo Odar’s The Silence  and Colette Bothof’s recent Summer ).
The rich absurdist terrain and the burying of the soothsayer in the body of the ticking, bumbling Van der Weyden turn out to be the perfect smokescreen for the exploration of national dysfunction. The Commandant’s painful physical persona and lack of suavity are perhaps outward emblems of the poetic agony inside him, of a man who carries the burden of insight and who is yet the consummate detective, rooting things out; he alone sees the misfortunes of the past and the embodiment of the future contained in the sneer of P’tit Quinquin. Dumont’s masterstroke was his discovery of Alane Delhaye to play the Everyman Quinquin and drive the national emblematic, and found the perfect foil in Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden; it is the essential opposition of the symbolic Volkisch weight of the rancorous Quinquin and the Commandant’s determination to get to the bottom of things and expose the truth that carry the weight of the allegory.
Redemptive or gloomy? Presumably, like Twin Peaks, the episodic P’tit Quinquin could run and run. However, the possibility, in P’tit Quinquin, of the sort of redemptive endings favoured (at least earlier on) by David Lynch does not apply here: to redeem the chaos of the infernal circle of Dumont’s drama would be to nullify his message which, in itself, is our dose of the awareness of human depravity and suffering—incidentally, an outcome recently achieved supremely in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014). We come also to perceive and understand how the ideology of the crime thriller, in its primary need to entertain, blinds us to the conditions in ourselves and in society which generate crime, cruelty and infernal disorder.