Leading Quebec filmmaker Robert Morin continues his track record of thematically charged pics with “The Negro,”‘ whose title in French equates with the pejorative N-word in English. Interspersed with off-center quirks, this policier takes an excessive amount of time to work up dramatic energy, but finally does so in a remarkably sustained sequence depicting a contempo lynching in Quebec farm country. The lethargic pace of what is essentially a procedural crime investigation drama will snuff out chances for any kind of export beyond specialized Gallic-lingo markets.
Morin’s camera thrusts viewer into the hysterical aftermath of a bloody crime scene, where an older lady, Cedulie (Beatrice Picard) has been shot dead and a young black man (Iannicko N’Doua-Legare) suspected of the killing has been seriously wounded by an emotionally distraught cop. Detective duo of Garry (Vincent Bilodeau) and Jacques (Claude Despins) try to put the pieces of the scene together, and at first, their bland assessment of the evidence is matched by the utter plainness of Morin’s staging and cutting and Jean-Pierre St-Louis’ lensing.
The detectives see a lawn statue of a black jockey smashed to pieces in the front yard of Cedulie’s farmland home. They’re hampered by not being able to interview witness Josee (Suzanne Lemoine), who is badly bruised and remains in shock. As Garry slowly interviews three other key witnesses, Jacques surveys Cedulie’s property, and traces a high-heeled shoe-print to a local exotic dancer, Samantha (Sandrine Bisson).
Morin plays a dangerous game with viewers, as he stretches to interminable length Garry’s plying of information from Taton (Robin Aubert), Canard (Emmanuel Bilodeau) and Bertrand (Jean-Guy Bouchard), all marginal locals who look like they’re all hiding something.
What gradually emerges is a “Rashomon”-like narrative in which each witness tells a different story; unlike the Kurosawa model, only two of the accounts are actually shown: Bertrand’s, from his somewhat surreally staged p.o.v.; and Samantha’s, more elaborately in pic’s payoff sequence.
The melange of stories describes an innocent enough prank by the black man (who never utters a word), with Cedulie forgiving him for the damage. From here, things spin out of control, with Taton and his bunch fueled by booze and racism. Despite Cedulie’s efforts, the drunken men end up torturing the black man (the worst of it kept off-camera).
Moran deliberately keeps some things unexplained to the end, and shows further narrative eccentricity with Cedulie’s autistic son, Polo (Rene-Daniel Dubois), whose unsettling Technicolor-style fantasies about the incident –which in the end may be the most accurate version — occasionally interrupt the plot.
Ensemble is up to the task, though some perfs border on stereotypes of rubes down on the farm. Technically, pic feels unsure of itself at first, but later performs some bravura notes, including notably athletic hand-held camerawork.