Rather than taking the normal route into filmmaking, Bruno Dumont studied and taught philosophy, learning his craft through publicity and corporate short films. His approach to filmmaking is therefore quite different to that of his contemporaries in French cinema and has always attracted controversy, from his debut feature La Vie de Jésus in 1996, through to his more recent TwentyNine Palms (2003). His latest film Flanders, recently won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2006. The contradictions and the difficulties of his style are probably most evident in his most successful film L’Humanité, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes 1999, with awards also for Best Actor and Best Actress. Acclaim however wasn’t unanimous and his films continue to polarise critical opinion.
Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), a police superintendent working in a small town in a rural region of North-East France, is shocked to discover the dead body of an 11 year-old girl who has been raped and sexually mutilated before being murdered. “Life is really sick”, his neighbour Domino (Séverine Caneele) tells him, before welcoming her husband Joseph (Philippe Tullier) home from work by having him there and then in the living room as Pharaon looks on. From the outset, the tone of L’Humanité is harsh and graphically brutal - the bleakness of the landscape, the grimness of the small urban setting (shot in the director’s home town of Bailleuil) and the miserableness of its inhabitants suffocating under the oppressive heat of a blistering summer. The characters express little other than the most basic human instincts, sating carnal lusts and desires – eating, drinking and fucking, fighting and arguing, pissing in public, passing the time of day with an economy of words and expression. Welcome to the grim, miserable world of Bruno Dumont.
Pharaon, we discover, is the great-grandson of a famous painter, also called Pharaon de Winter. He also lost his girlfriend and child in some unknown accident. Or perhaps they just left him. The film doesn’t make this or anything else particularly clear. This information however is enough to make Pharaon’s position and vision of the world is a little more complicated than most. It also shows us that beauty, in the form of his great-grandfather’s religious portraits and in his own little garden allotment, can exist and be created out of such an environment, but also that beauty and love is impermanent and can be corrupted or lost. And what could be more representative of the loss of innocence than the brutal rape and murder of an 11 year-old child? (The same contradiction can be seen throughout with the huge cathedral at the bottom of the bland urban street that Pharaon lives on). Somewhat a holy innocent then, Pharaon is a little slow and simple-minded and is playfully made fun of by his neighbours Domino and Joseph, who take him on excursions with them to a restaurant or to the seaside. Pharaon is however a competent detective and a keen observer, and despite his distaste for the horror of the crime that has occurred in the town and his apparent disability, he undertakes an investigation, following the bus route looking for clues and witnesses to what has happened. It’s a long, slow investigation – witnesses and suspects are questioned, but when they don’t feel capable or loquacious (few people are in this part of the world it seems), the detectives just put their enquiry off until another day.
Form and content are thus perfectly matched in Dumont’s film, which is filled with long slow scenes where little happens, little is spoken that is anything more than the most perfunctory of exchanges that express little more than antagonism – yet, for as long as the film is, it never drags and seems to eke every grim ounce of detail out of the characters, their lives and their environment, always moving purposefully forward. This of course depends on your definition of purposeful. If you think the purpose of the film is to solve and explain a murder-mystery, you are likely to be somewhat disappointed. Nor is it even a character study. L’Humanité, as the title of the film ought to indicate, is a rather more expansive existential examination of what it is to be human and cope with base human desires. That may well sound pretentious - and the long slow delivery may well set off alarm bells at another example of arthouse miserabilism in the style of Béla Tarr - but Bruno Dumont’s minimalist style at least is anything but pretentious. It doesn’t attempt to either set out to impress, make grand gestures or obfuscate with empty stylisation. Using non-professional actors, it’s plain and direct, harsh and brutal. It depicts the lives of its characters and humanity in the larger frame - their internal struggles and conflicts expressed in the bleakness of the environment and the misery of that bleak and brutal world conversely eating its way into their souls.
L’Humanité is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
The film is transferred to DVD anamorphically at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and by and large it is fine in terms of sharpness, detail and clarity, with few visible marks, scratches or print damage. If it tends to the softer side with evidence of grain, it’s appropriate and gives a nice filmic quality. Colours are slightly cool, dull and bluish, but this could be the intended colour scheme, capturing as it does the coolness and austerity of tone that the film strives to create. On the negative side, there is however some flicker of macro-blocking artefacts and some minor judder in the image in a couple of scenes. These are not frequent or terribly distracting. Rather more worrying is the shape of the image, which occasionally looks stretched in the centre of the frame and is bowed to the left and right. This is evident throughout the film, but may perhaps not be significant for some viewers. A screenshot below shows the extent of the bowing on the upper-left of the frame.
The audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, which is a more than adequate mix for the film. Dialogue is clear, the eclectic score is impressive and there is consequently little to find fault with here.
English subtitles are provided in a white font and are optional. They seemed to shimmer on occasion, but are generally clear and readable.
The only extra features included on the disc are Production Notes, which provide useful background information on the director and the critical response towards his work and a brief Filmography.
L’Humanité can at times be difficult and uncomfortable viewing and it is debatable and down to individual perspectives whether anything meaningful can be gained from it as a film. Often described as polarising, I have to admit I find myself ambivalent to the work of Bruno Dumont – able to see the qualities that he has as a filmmaker, but unable to make any meaningful connection with the characters or subject. Whether you can relate to it or not however, the director’s worldview is a singular and uncompromising one and for that alone it will always merit attention. Artificial Eye’s release for the film on DVD is therefore long overdue, but in this case is merely just above average in terms of it’s A/V presentation and features.