Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, 2014)

Philippe Jore and Bernard Pruvost in a scene from Bruno Dumont's  Li'l Quinquin  {Photo: KINO LORBER}

Philippe Jore and Bernard Pruvost in a scene from Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quinquin {Photo: KINO LORBER}

Li'L Quinquin screens at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, March 7 and Monday, March 9. For additional ticketing information, please click here

Li’l Quinquin, only my second experience with Bruno Dumont following his previous film, the Juliette Binoche-led Camille Claudel 1915, is a freak show. It’s a hick parade set in French farm community that’s overrun with racial tension and a communal heritage of sadism. It also possesses a cast of non-actors that may as well have been peripheral characters in Tod Browning’s Freaks.  It’s too long and alarmingly ugly. Yet it’s utterly mesmerizing? This unwieldy three hour-plus film is difficult to place but to put it reductively: it must be seen to be believed.

Two parallel narratives are united through, of all things, an airborne bovine. The first narrative involves a boy, the titular Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), cycling through the French farmland with friends as he follows a helicopter. The helicopter airlifts a dead cow from a ramshackle bunker – how the cow got there is a mystery, though it’s what’s in the cow that prompts this questionable use of community resources. The second narrative sees the town investigators, Commandant Van der Weyden and Lieutenant Carpentier (Bernard Pruvost and Philippe Jore, respectively) piecing together a murder mystery. The body count escalates as these two lawmen attempt to figure out who could be murdering townspeople and – ahem – who would be stuffing their ravaged bodies up a cow’s ass.

It’s dark material treated with such deadpan humor that one almost feels bad for laughing at something so macabre. It’s all by design though, where Dumont’s poker faced ambitions lend itself to addressing macro Franco concerns on a rural micro level. Consider the foul-mouthed epitaphs hurled by Quinquin, who contributes to the psychological meltdown of a young black townsman. It’s Quinquin’s family, consisting of a farmhand father, his clinically insane uncle, and mostly absent mother, that are a spiraling abyss of death and murder-minded insecurities, maintaining a status quo of white, male hegemony throughout the land. Even the lead investigators, incompetent officers who wouldn’t know how to piece together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing the picture, ultimately contribute to maintaining the established hegemony despite the explicit evidence against them.

So… why is this all just really, really funny? One would not have to look much further than Bernard Pruvost’s facial tics to have something so preposterously humorous to gaze upon. This takes Jake Gyllenhaal’s compulsive blinking in Prisoners to a whole other level, where Pruvost maneuvers his face in a form of acrobatic contortion; it’s a marvel. And then there’s tiny details: the way that the inspector’s automobile struggles to accelerate, how Philippe Jore seems to have his mouth open just wide enough to see he has but two teeth, or Pruvost’s comical action roll to dodge gunfire. With Dumont rarely straying away from either close-up shots of his actors or wide shots to capture the physicality of his performers, the film possesses an incredible hit rate of funny images.

But there’s a clear, at times underlying, other times full frontal, horror to it all that makes the whole experience very difficult to categorize. I was often times moved by the film, but I can’t help but feel a bit duped by these gestures. Every sweet gesture, typically had between Quinquin and his girlfriend, bares a disturbing undercurrent that swells and jars the viewer. But that’s perhaps part of what makes Li’l Quinquin so perpetually watchable: it’s the unquestionable feeling that you’re watching two familiar narratives – a coming-of-age story and a police procedural – and feel completely out of your element from scene to scene. You succumb to it, jibe with it, and laugh with it.