I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Chiaroscuro levels of thought.”
When French-German public television channel Arte announced in 2013 that it had commissioned Bruno Dumont to write and direct Li’l Quinquin, a comedic mini-series featuring children and a police investigation, many had to double-check their calendars to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. Known to film lovers for his use of non-professional actors in enigmatic stories juxtaposing the material and the spiritual, Dumont did not seem like the go-to guy for televised entertainment. Yet upon delivery, Li’l Quinquin is beyond what anyone except Dumont could have imagined: a riotously funny, occasionally slapstick comedy that remains utterly faithful to the vision that appeared wholly realized in Dumont’s first feature The Life of Jesus (1997) and has stayed the course through the six features that followed.
With Li’l Quinquin, Dumont returns to the grey skies and muddy earth of his native north of France to follow local Police Captain van der Weyden and his assistant Carpentier as they investigate an accumulation of grotesque murders before the eyes of local kid Li’l Quinquin, his girlfriend Eve, and his gang of friends. As played by non-professional actor Bernard Pruvost, Captain van der Weyden is one of the great comedic characters of recent years, with unpredictably rolling eyes, herky-jerky facial expressions, wild metaphors, and a walk to put Monty Python to shame. Yet in a way that is unique to Dumont’s cinema, van der Weyden also seems touched with a greater knowledge that brings him back again and again to the farm Li’l Quinquin inhabits with his parents and disabled uncle Dany.
A declared atheist, Dumont has always explored issues of good and evil, filming violence and sex acts, newspaper sociology and miracles with the same ambiguous gaze. The comedy in Li’l Quinquin makes you giddy with pleasure, but leads you into that thought-provoking, dangerous zone where you have to check if you are laughing with the characters or at them—or perhaps if they are laughing at you. Li’l Quinquin is sui generis. It feels like nothing if not a Bruno Dumont movie, though anyone who enjoyed the knotting of laughter and the macabre in Twin Peaks will want to see it.
I spoke to Dumont in New York, a few days before his film had its US premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival and several weeks after the first of the four episodes of Li’l Quinquinattracted 1.5 million viewers on its initial French broadcast, a record for the channel’s original programming. Li’l Quinquin opens theatrically in New York in January 2015.
Nicholas Elliott There’s a scene in Li’l Quinquin in which Police Captain van der Weyden meets the prosecutor in a restaurant and is asked to report the facts about his investigation. His attention is gradually distracted by a disabled young man who is knocking plates off his family’s table and generally wreaking havoc. This is where I realized that while the film follows a police investigation—an attempt to explain events—what we’re really dealing with is the incomprehensible and the irrational, and that actually things cannot be explained.
Bruno Dumont Yes. What I’m really interested in is getting as close as possible to the mysterious, but I don’t want to follow the paths of mystery as a genre. I like to find metaphors or analogies that evoke the mysterious. By definition, a police investigation is quite a mysterious path. But the people investigating are researchers, not alchemists. They’re not looking for the Holy Grail. It’s very concrete and easy to understand. I already used a police investigation in Humanité (1999). At the time, I thought about what Jean-Pierre Melville said, which is that a detective story makes a good vehicle to set the quest in motion—the quest for the Grail, one could even say—through an outwardly accessible, non-head-scratching method. Many criminal investigations are mysterious, we don’t actually know what happened. It’s interesting not to know, to be stumped, because it’s an analogy for the quest for truth, which I consider equally vain. I’m always looking for equivalences when I write. I try to avoid being cerebral. In the restaurant scene, we’re colliding with the irrational. I like when things are apparently highly naturalistic but are actually totally wacky. They’re not naturalist at all, they’re totally surrealist. That scene is completely surrealist. Everything’s going off in every direction. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s still in a restaurant, with actors. The banana peel we’re going to slip on isn’t obvious. I know there are viewers who don’t understand. Some people can’t see that it’s wacky, they take it at face value. But I like that too—I like to leave the viewer the freedom to take it at face value, or at any other level. It’s not evident.
NE It’s not evident on many planes. The film reaches a point where everything could be funny or not funny at all. I’m thinking of the discovery of a dead woman, tied naked to some driftwood on the beach. The captain says her body reminds him of a Flemish master’s painting. On the one hand, the situation is hilarious; on the other, it’s obviously tragic.
NE I see the same thing in the way that the two cops are always trying to explain things. They use lots of clichés and their clichés drive the viewer away from easy explanations. For instance, when the Muslim teenager Mohammed starts shooting at people from his bedroom, you appear to explicitly show us that his action is a response to racist insults. Yet hearing that explanation in cliché form from Captain van der Weyden casts doubt on the most obvious explanation. Suddenly I no longer know how to interpret the boy’s action.
BD That’s the idea. It’s to lead the viewer to a fault line where we no longer know if an event is dramatic or not. That’s the point where the burlesque and the grotesque encounter drama. When the captain does his cop show duck and roll but something awful is happening in the background—the kid is about to die—we move very quickly from one extremity to the other. Even when I edited it, I was stunned by that moment’s impact. Because we’re not used to being flung from one side to the other. It’s a kind of instability vis-à-vis our academic and even moral canons. We’re used to going in one direction, that’s it. It really shakes you up to be tossed around between the grotesque, the comedic, and the absolutely serious, with deeply banal sociological and even historical elements thrown into the mix. That’s what I’m interested in: being jostled. I think we’re jostled in relation to our own ambiguity. There is a kind of irony between what is off and what is in, what we say and what we don’t. For instance, public speech is highly regulated, but it conceals a totally contradictory deviousness. That’s what the film is about—it’s borderline immoral, reactionary, decorous. Some people are shocked. They tell me we don’t have a right to make fun of clerics or prosecutors. I was quite surprised, because the film is wacky enough to avoid that kind of ambiguity. But some people disagree. Because the ambiguity is violent; it’s not clear.
NE What is your relationship to your characters? Captain van der Weyden is ridiculous, but the film doesn’t seem to mock him. How do you do that?
BD That’s exactly what I’m interested in. I want to be able to go from one to the other in a single narrative. Meaning that I can make the character of Li’l Quinquin beautiful—I think he’s beautiful due to the way I look at him, despite the fact that physically he’s not beautiful. It’s the same with the captain. By the end of the movie, he’s touching. He leaves the ridiculous behind, though initially I made him a clown, that’s his function, but it’s a function that doesn’t remove his humanity. And humanity is acquired, it isn’t a given. You have to go on the journey with the captain to reach the fourth episode and notice that he takes on a near-mystical dimension. He receives that, it’s not there at the beginning. I met a lot of people who had a hard time with the captain in the first episode, who were like,“Who the hell is this guy,” but wind up loving him. I find it fascinating to travel with characters and change your opinion of them.
NE I spend a lot of time thinking about the filmmaker’s position vis-à-vis his characters. I find it disturbing when a character appears to be condescended to, for instance in some Coen brothers movies. So, from a practical perspective, how do you deal with a character like van der Weyden, with his facial tics and—
BD They’re instruments, they’re not characters. The question you’re asking is a moral one, about relationships between people. I don’t think that’s relevant. A film is an assemblage, in a sense it’s beyond good and evil. It’s my character, so by definition I can’t condescend to him. I’m not making a documentary. The character is an instrument in the big machine of the film, of which he is an essential actor and performer. And creator. Bernard Pruvost, who plays van der Weyden, is very creative. But he performs a score, which he is given and in which he remains a performer. So my position is neither above nor below him. It’s me, it’s part of me, there’s no distance. The characters are stakeholders of the film, of which I myself am one of the components. I can’t be on the inside and be a smartass. That’s impossible.
NE You never have the impression that there is a disturbing ironic distance in the way characters are treated in other people’s films? The actor is an instrument, but he’s also a human being.
BD Sure, when you can feel that an actor is being used to … That’s a problem. There’s no doubt that the people in my films are people I really love and like to work with. They are so human. I really believe in the diversity of beings. I like to work with disabled people. I like my relationship with them. I spent a lot of time with Jason Cirot, who plays Dany, to get to what we see on screen. I enjoy the process of companionship with him. It’s really interesting to have him work, to listen to him, to have him say yes or no to me. He’s not a puppet. That’s impossible. He’d tell me to fuck off in a hurry. I’ve been drawn to disabled people ever since I was a child. Disability is another enigmatic thing; it’s truly human, but it’s a little dislocated. It really speaks to me, but I don’t know exactly why. It goes back to what you were saying earlier about the mysterious—there’s something very mysterious about a disabled person. I bring them into the films so that they will participate in its machinery. When Jason spins on himself, that’s something he found himself. We were looking for a way for him to hold himself in the film and he told me, “There’s a thing I like to do.” And off he went spinning. So I integrated it. There were times when he fell over. It’s funny, and people are going to say I’m making fun of the disabled guy. Of course not! I make as much fun of the captain falling as Dany falling. We all fall. He’s in on it. Jason knows he’s participating in a comedy. He understands, he’s not mentally impaired in the slightest. He’s acting, he’s performing a character who is what he, Jason, is. There’s no commentary: he is what he is, just like the rest of us. There’s no judgment. On the contrary, I think it’s an enrichment. By bringing people on to be as they are, I know that I will be true to the human enterprise. I think it’s worse to take a professional actor and turn him into a tool at his own hand. My actors are very resistant to me. They have a relatively narrow ability to play a character, but it exists. I’m able to adjust them—less, or more—and they do it. But they give me something back. The problem I have with movie actors is that they have an enormous desire to do everything. That’s just not what I’m doing. Whereas Bernard is docile. We found his peculiar way of walking because I was looking to disrupt his natural way of moving. He did it with tremendous pleasure.
I like my actors’ presence and what they have to say. Li’l Quinquin’s father contains something … human, like every being. I need that in order to be true. Because I’ve got a fictional story but at the same time something needs to resist. I can’t regulate everything, that’s impossible. There’s something true about actors being human. That needs to be preserved because it is useful to get to what I’m aiming for. The captain is as he is in life, with his physical appearance, his facial tics, his hearing problems, but he’s also interpreting a text. Sometimes he forgets his lines and comes up with weird lines like, “It’s as clear as a mussel,” and it’s great, it’s funny. So he also perturbs the dialogue’s rigidity, which I like. I give them their dialogue because you have to give them something, but I do it hoping that somehow they’ll turn it upside down.
NE Bernard Pruvost’s tics are perfect, because they’re like constant question marks.
BD That’s it. He has a very expressive way of amplifying his questions. It’s wonderful to go so far in interpreting a score of which he is a part. The wildest thing isn’t casting him in the film, it’s giving him that particular mission. He has no business being there. Bernard is no boss, he’s never given an order in his life. I made him a boss and made him talk a lot. In real life he doesn’t talk much and Philippe Jore, who plays his assistant Carpentier, talks non-stop. I prevented Carpentier from talking. I basically made them switch roles. Fiction does that too. I don’t leave them the way they are. You have to give them a costume. I disguised them as police officers and gave them guns. Of course, when Bernard pulls his gun out, he’s never done that in his life, which enriches the upheaval. The detective genre is so heavily coded that the comedy comes from the upheaval. The two are so unlikely in that job that they immediately break down the clichés of detective films. The comedic aspect also comes from complicity with viewers who know police procedurals and tell themselves, Wow, this is crazy.
NE I was struck by your use of reaction shots, especially of Carpentier. We often see him watching things, but he’s totally inscrutable. I have no idea what he’s thinking, which makes the film much denser. The same is true of Li’l Quinquin; we often see him watching, but we don’t have a clue what’s going on inside him.
BD Those are actually neutral shots. They only take on meaning through the impact of editing. In the individual shots, the actors do nothing. I’d tell Carpentier, “Okay, I’m doing a reverse shot on you, you’re looking, think about whatever you want, I don’t care.” He has no expression—it’s neutral—but when I edit the shot into the scene where the captain gets on the horse, it creates something. I like finding cutaways that were not made with the natural reaction that someone who witnesses the action would have. It makes the viewer circumspect, he wonders what the character is thinking. He’s actually not thinking at all. Only the editing creates meaning.
The scene with the prosecutor was very work-intensive. It wasn’t funny at all because I was directing a lot, telling the disabled boy exactly when to throw things and so on. It became funny in the editing, through the ping-pong effect between the prosecutor and the captain, Carpentier watching, the disabled kid turning everything on its head. That overall orchestration is due to the editing. I realized that I don’t need to give the actors a meaning to understand when I’m directing them because they don’t need to understand. The actor has to provide a useful shot. The useful shot can be an anachronistic shot that will fit into any chronology. Its anachronistic nature will provide it with a kind of staggering effect in terms of meaning—because it has no meaning. As a viewer, you’re swept into a psychological logic by shots that are basically surrealistic; they don’t come out of anything, but they make the viewer go looking for meaning, because that’s the viewer’s job. Carpentier is watching, what does he think—that’s the viewer’s natural reaction.
Inserting a neutral shot into a psychological montage with events taking place will create a tonal counterpoint that will blow out psychology and create what you described—“this is bizarre, I don’t know what this guy is thinking.”
While making the film, it’s interesting to avoid giving people the key to what they’re doing. I often don’t give actors the script. There’s no psychology because they’re deprived of it. I don’t deprive them of it to torture them, but because I think it will enrich the film. I like to break naturalism. Editing recreates a kind of naturalism, but it’s a false naturalism since everything is artificial. The artifice disappears beneath a scene that appears to be naturalistic but isn’t at all—yet is at the same time. So, like we were saying, we don’t know what to think because there are contradictory movements of naturalism, non-naturalism, neutral shots, and so on. That adds up to something kind of twisted but it’s not plainly apparent. It’s not totally wacky, there’s a degree of verisimilitude, which is the product of lots of choices, like direct sound. I find that assemblage creates something very interesting about what we are, meaning that we’re pretty much the same on the inside. You can say something nice about someone and think he’s an asshole. No one can tell. That’s something you can show in cinema. Duplicity is difficult to grasp with your intelligence because your intelligence is black or white. Gray is complicated. But you can do it in cinema. By reapplying things—even nonsense—you can get back to the real colors. The real colors are what we see in the captain—both the grotesque and the sensitive. He’s deeply sensitive and touching. He’s very human. And he winds up being very beautiful.
I had the same experience when I made Camille Claudel 1915. It’s difficult to watch the first shots of disabled people. But by the end of the film we wind up loving them. Because of the gaze. The camera grabs the characters and makes them good and beautiful. Even if you film a character who is a bastard, like I did in Life of Jesus, you manage to find qualities in that person. But it’s ambiguous, it’s morally difficult. At the end, you ask yourself, Well, is he a hero or is he not a hero? It’s interesting to heroize ambiguous characters.
NE That duality is apparent in the last shot of Aurélie, on the phone. She’s the only one who seems to have the appropriate moral response to Mohammed’s death. She’s crying, she feels guilty, and for the first time we hear non-diegetic music. But in the background we see and hear a herd of pigs.
BD And she goes to pet the pigs as if they were sheep, which is totally incongruous. You don’t pet pigs, but at the same time there’s the music and she’s crying. That’s really complicated to watch because the pigs’ grunting is pretty high in the mix, she has a tender moment with them, which is quite odd, but she’s also just had the only normal reaction that we’ve seen in quite a while, and that scrambling of the real, the false, and the nearly-false creates a canvas that is vaguely surreal. So it’s a total brain-scrambler, which is a good way of preparing the viewer to reach certain places, shall we say, chiaroscuro levels of thought. Aurélie is responsible for what happened, but she’s suffering because of it. So she’s somewhere in between. And on top of it all, she’s going to get killed. Her trajectory is pretty complicated. She might be touching when she’s singing her song, but the song is cheesy. There’s something contradictory about the mission I’m giving her, which is to tell her to sing an idiotic song, but to sing it with tremendous grace, and that I’m going to film the grace. That idiotic song is also incongruous with the situation where she sings it, which is a funeral. That’s exactly what I like: creating contradictory forces that make a dialectic, which is quite accurate in its representation of our systems of thought. There are plenty of girls like that singing on moronic TV shows, but these girls are not without grace. They touch me, though I find them to be utter idiots. I’m really interested in that contradiction, in having both. In the normal order of life, you’re told that you have to choose—you love her or you don’t. I like Aurélie a lot, because I find her touching, but that doesn’t stop her from doing something moronic. We have to allow beings their actions, which is why I have someone good doing something bad. I express that in my directing—it can be through duration, the way I consider this young woman. Lisa Hartmann, who plays Aurélie, struggled with it. I think she gets it now. I told her: I’m not going to film you as ridiculous. You’re doing something kind of lame, but the camera is going to save you. The same goes for the police officers’ tomfoolery—I save them. That’s why I say I love my characters, but can film them coldly, doing horrible stuff, because I’ll always catch them in the end. I won’t let them down. I’ve done that since my first film Life of Jesus, where I catch the protagonist Freddy at the end. It may be ambiguous, but there’s always a glimmer there.
NE We’ve talked a lot about apparently complex things. One aspect of the film appears to be simple. In each of the four episodes, you show Li’l Quinquin and his girlfriend Eve embracing, accentuating that gesture either by cutting closer or using several set-ups. Why do you repeat it?
BD The power of their love is always there no matter what happens. Li’l Quinquin and Eve are the guardians of love, the seeds. But Li’l Quinquin is also shady. Evil is there too. Yet he has an extraordinary ability to love. Those two little ones are starting to do what grown-ups do. It’s good to have this major brightness that accompanies the obscurity and darkness that you see elsewhere, because that’s life. So there’s something bright, optimistic, and joyous, which is love. When Eve loses her sister, Li’l Quinquin accompanies her, he takes her in his arms. That’s glorious. The glory of love illuminates. It’s the same at the end: Li’l Quinquin accompanies his grandfather and he wraps his arm around his love. There’s that mysterious look he gives. What does that look mean? I have no idea. And the captain looks at Li’l Quinquin holding Eve. The power of love is there contradicting what’s going on in the farmyard. It’s all a matter of orchestration. It’s as if while the violins were doing one thing, there were a kind of sonic disorder going on behind them, but it still makes music. A counterpoint.
NE You said the children are like adults. I was struck by that, even in the expression on their faces.
BD Those scenes were very difficult to shoot, because children don’t hold each other that way. It was especially difficult with the little girl. When Li’l Quinquin held her, she went stiff as a board. It was quite forced, but ultimately that pays off. It’s more fruitful to have recalcitrant actors. The script says it’s a hugging scene, that’s what the viewer will see. But to a certain extent the way it’s played goes against the grain, because of her. Her difficulty held him back too. So actually Li’l Quinquin is tense, but the viewer is going to analyze that tension, like you did. I find it really interesting to have a performer who has difficulty doing the scene and leave the difficulty in. I wasn’t going to force a little girl. It was the same thing on Life of Jesus. Marie didn’t like Freddy, but I still shot the scenes. You can’t really tell, but if you do, it creates something bizarre. If you include a point of alteration, it creates surprise. I find that engrossing.
I often turn the difficulties I’m facing into laws. You can’t predict it, of course. When I hired the little girl, I told her she’d have to kiss him, but it was a whole different story on set. It gives those scenes a kind of inevitability—they’re going to hug—something that says no. That no is an alteration, and that alteration is the beginning of the truth. There’s a fault line, I have to deal with it. I have to stick with my actors. There’s a need to be strict, but I also can’t push them too hard. I have to take care of them. It’s very contradictory. When she closes her eyes, she doesn’t give a shit about the boy. I can tell you that, but the viewer doesn’t see it. The viewer falls for it. Cinema is also subterfuge. I’m demystifying everything I mystify. I could tell you lots of things about mystification in cinema—in the positive sense of the term—but what’s fascinating is how a viewer transcends and transfigures all of that. That’s why I’m often not fussy about matching cuts. I say, the viewer will buy it. There are things that fly, despite the fact that they’re totally illogical. That’s fascinating. You have to avoid finishing the film too much. The viewer finishes it. Of course, you take the risk of having some viewers that won’t be able to follow. My film isn’t buckled up the way ordinary films are, films in which you’re safe, where everything’s fine, everything’s been explained, all the events and the music are there, everything merges.
NE Did you think about the codes of television series?
BD No, that’s exactly the point. I didn’t give a shit about them. I wasn’t going to send my actors to observe a police squad for three months. I really didn’t care. I wanted them to bust things up, which they did naturally. They didn’t know how to do most of the things according to police canons and that’s what I wanted. There were no rehearsals: action, let’s go.
NE I meant the structure of TV series. I don’t watch many of them—
BD —me neither.
NE But what bothers me in those I do see is the structural repetition in each episode. Whereas Li’l Quinquin has repeating elements in each episode, like the town gatherings, but they don’t each follow the traditional arc. Did you conceive Li’l Quinquin in terms of episodes or a single film?
BD A single film. I wanted to have a single, sweeping narrative line, and afterwards I’d have to cut it up. But to cut something up, you need to start with something whole. I never wrote four episodes. I wrote a big story. At first, I delivered it in six parts, they told me four would be better, so I took the six parts and pop! I didn’t touch a thing, I turned it into four. There’s no writing different parts. You need continuity. For example, Aurélie’s narrative line: you see her once at the beginning, she needs to sing in the church, then in the courtyard of her farm, and at the concert. Tou see her in the fight with her girlfriend and Mohammed, then her death. I constructed that. I had the threads for Aurélie, for the two kids, and the captain, and then I had to weave them together. Generally, I don’t like the resolution in series. What’s beautiful is the suspense. You’re pulling at everything and launching the viewer on a quest. But the end is always very rational.
What I like about the big criminal cases is that you don’t know, like with the murder of the French boy Grégory Villemin in 1984. It’s still a mystery what happened. In a mystery, you find the mystical and come up against the incomprehensible. But that incomprehensible aspect fits into a police investigation, it’s not a mystical quest with all the obscurity and head-scratching that that could entail. Mystery is beautiful. I end in mystery.
NE What was your starting point for Li’l Quinquin?
BD Him. Since that’s the title, I had him. I was interested in the character Li’l Quinquin, then there was the investigation and especially the idea of working with very different colors and that the film’s richness could come from taking a rest from comedy in the midst of making comedy. Putting children—who can be very lyrical, romantic, slightly corny—into this funniness, gives us a rest from the funniness but also increases it. The cops are funny, but you can’t laugh all the time. The children immerse us in fresh water. You have to change the water to feel something. If you stay in the cold, you get used to it after a while. So I increase the viewers’ sensitivity by plunging them in different baths. You’re a lot more likely to laugh if you’ve been with the children and haven’t laughed for a while. The viewer needs to take a rest from laughing in order to laugh again. The idea was to have characters who allowed that kind of orchestration.
Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee