L’Humanite (1999)

Dir. by Bruno Dumont

Images: Dumont’s style could perhaps be described as a more polished verite. He uses only diegetic sound and shoots non-professional actors in stunning compositions and with impressive grace. Most striking images are those that foreground the “fleshiness” of characters. For instance, we ocassionally enter Pharaon’s POV as he stares at the back of the inspector’s neck or at his mother’s hand. Later, the camera lingers on a close-up of Pharaon, forcing us to listen attentively to his breathing. The explicit and unsentimental staging of sex between Domino and Joseph serves a similar purpose.

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What interests me is life, people, the small things. Cinema is for the body, for the emotions. It needs to be restored among the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of joy, emotion, suffering, sympathy in death. They don’t speak, speaking is not important. What’s important is the emotions. It is for the spectator to make these things conscious, it is not for me to do it. The spectator must think. He has a lot of work to do. The power of cinema lies in the return of man to the body, to the heart, to truth. The man of the people has a truth that the man of the city, the intellectual, has lost. [He] has something that I’ve lost, that I must find again, I don’t know what exactly. I find that our culture, our civilization, has failed politically, socially, morally.

Bruno Dumont

Walt Whitman would be proud.

It’s remarkable to hear echoes of Whitman in the voice of a contemporary filmmaker, but there he is, still singing the “body electric” and sounding his “barbaric yawp.” Like the poet before him, Dumont has turned to the arts in a Democratic spirit, celebrating the “common man” (for lack of a better term) in all of his rich complexity. Although I’ve always found the county/city dichotomy a bit reductive, I applaud Dumont’s devotion to it here, for it’s as radical a statement in cinema today as it was when Whitman staked his claim on verse with Leaves of Grass.

Dumont is, of course, not totally without peer — Abbas Kiarostami is the closest kin to come to mind —but, in L’Humanite, he has made a landmark film that, ultimately, restores . . . well . . . humanity to the screen. In doing so, he has transcended the verite and dogme traditions. He has not simply turned a shaky camera on “real people” living “real lives,” a manipulative fiction now broadcast nightly on network television. He respects his characters, his form, and his audience too much to cheapen them in that way. Instead, like Whitman, he gives us stunning and occasionally shocking images of the body — here, a conflation of the body of flesh with the body politic — and requires us to respond genuinely to them.

The cumulative effect of these images on the viewer is, at times, unnerving. L’Humanite slowly erodes the ironic detachment and cynicism that we’ve built as defenses, forcing us to actually feel something. It should come as little surprise that Dumont’s film was met by a chorus of jeers at Cannes, while Sam Mendes’ American Beauty — a film that, in many ways, adopts a similar humanist stance — won an Academy award. We seem to have surrendered our ability to recognize sincerity, opting instead for easy satire and emotional distance (not to mention “larger than life” performances over truthful ones). Ricky Fitts claims, in American Beauty, that “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it… and my heart is going to cave in,” but the scene ultimately has less impact than a plastic bag. It’s a disposable image, like so many of our manufactured emotions. L’Humanite doesn’t let us off so easy.

Dumont establishes the tone of L’Humanite in its opening scene, a static long shot of the French countryside, which lasts nearly a minute. Across the horizon, we see a small figure running from one edge of the frame to the other. Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) is a police superintendent in a small French town, who is called to investigate the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl. We learn little about Pharaon’s past, other than that he has “lost” his woman and his child. He seems to have only one friend, a woman named Domino (Séverine Caneele), who tolerates Pharaon’s idiosyncrasies, but who prefers the company of her bus driver boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier).

As most critics have pointed out, L’Humanite is, on the surface, a police procedural that isn’t terribly concerned with the resolution of its mystery. By traditional standards, Pharaon is an incompetent detective, but it is, in fact, those very standards that Dumont is interrogating. Movie detectives are typical of most Western heroes: stoic, logical, and doggedly determined. Pharaon, instead, is a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, is overwhelmed by an empathy of which very few of us are still capable. He longs desperately to connect with humanity — to feel it, touch it, smell it, taste it, kiss it — but is frustrated at every turn. Even Domino, who wants, at least on some level, to comfort him, is able to offer only her body (a too frequent substitute these days).

The most powerful moment in L’Humanite comes when, while investigating the crime scene, Pharaon lets loose a long, wild scream. It is a moment of pure, inarticulate emotion unlike anything I have ever experienced from a film. That scream alone makes L’Humanite more real, more painful, and more affecting than any other film I’ve seen from the 90s. A barbaric yawp, indeed.