Perhaps not since Greta Garbo uttered her celebrated first chortle in “Ninotchka” has a film artist’s entrance into comedy been quite as unexpected as that of French director Bruno Dumont. A high priest of cine-miserablism drawn to Bressonian tales of spiritual suffering, Dumont lets loose his inner clown for “Li’l Quinquin,” a four-part TV miniseries that frequently suggests a cross between “True Detective” and Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops, while remaining every inch a Dumont movie, from its windswept northern French locales to its sometimes discomfiting use of nonprofessional actors. The odd mix of elements makes for an alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) hilarious and unsettling whole, and yet another compelling example of established bigscreen auteurs finding their richest opportunities in longform television. A more challenging sell than either Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” or Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake,” Dumont’s pic should nevertheless see many fest bookings and specialized cable play following its Cannes premiere. In France, the series will air on co-producer Arte.
Dumont is certainly no stranger to the police procedural, having set two previous films — the Cannes-lauded “Humanite” and the recent “Hors Satan” — against the backdrop of murder investigations in the rural communities around his own birthplace of Baileul, near Calais. But neither of those movies featured so macabre and funny a sight as the one that begins “Li’l Quinquin”: the lifeless body of a cow being airlifted by helicopter from the depths of an abandoned WWII-era bunker. Inside the animal lurks an even grislier discovery: the dismembered body parts of a woman, minus only her head. It is, observes a suitably gobsmacked police lieutenant with deadpan aplomb, like something out of Zola — a literal “bete humaine.”
Of course, the line between man and beast has always been a fluid one in Dumont’s films, and as the body count rises over the course of “Li’l Quinquin,” it falls to two men — the good Lt. Carpentier (Philippe Jore) and his boss, Cpt. Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) — to make sense of the strange happenings. But whoever will make sense of Van der Weyden, who sports the bushiest, most expressive eyebrows this side of Groucho Marx (set in constant motion by a series of unexplained, Tourette’s-like ticks) and whose perplexing investigative methods seem derived equally from Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Clouseau? (The late reveal of Van der Weyden’s all-too-appropriate nickname proves one of the film’s deftest touches.)
But the local cops aren’t the only ones on the case: Because the events coincide with the start of summer vacation, they serve as a welcome distraction for the mischief-minded Quinquin (Alane Delhaye, a towheaded moppet with a blazing, blue-eyed stare), who whiles away his days playing pranks on his hapless parents and grandparents (the latter of whom are seen, in one of the film’s best gags, “setting” the dinner table by playing ring toss with the china and silverware). There isn’t much for a kid to do in this seaside nowheresville, and so when Quinquin isn’t hurling lit fireworks into the house, he and his band of similarly bored pals peddle their bikes around town, watching from afar as the police investigation unfolds — the most exciting thing, it would seem, to happen around these parts in ages.
Little by little, a sinister jigsaw puzzle begins to form, though Dumont takes as much evident pleasure from playing by genre conventions as he does in subverting them. The initial victim turns out to be a certain Mrs. Lebleu, the wife of a local farmer and the alleged mistress of a certain Mr. Bhiri, who soon enough turns up missing himself, as does Mr. Lebleu’s own lover. More body parts turn up inside yet more farm animals. The town’s bucolic surface is itself revealed to be but a thin film disguising a hotbed of racism and xenophobia, maladies that extend to even the youngest residents.
But while the plotting is always carefully thought out, it is to some extent an elaborate pretext for Dumont to muse on one of his favorite subjects: the nature of good and evil and how, if at all, we can truly know the one from the other. Just as “Hors Satan” focused on a mysterious drifter who was perhaps angel, perhaps demon, perhaps a bit of both, it comes as little surprise that one episode of “Li’l Quinquin” bears the subtitle “The Devil Incarnate” — as reasonable an explanation as any for who is to blame here.
To the fascination of some and the consternation of others, Dumont has always made liberal use of amateur actors afflicted with mental and/or physical handicaps that go largely unacknowledged by the characters themselves and everyone around them. Such is the director’s way of exploding the self-pitying ethos of so many disease-of-the-week movies, and giving a rare kind of agency to performers who would never make it past the first round of most casting calls. There can be no denying that this leads to some scenes that sit on an ambiguous border between documentary and fiction, in which one can’t say for sure whether the actors are really acting or merely being themselves (especially, in “Li’l Quinquin,” during an extended funeral scene presided over by an irrepressibly giggling pastor). Yet it is always clear that Dumont approaches his actors as equals, doesn’t condescend or exploit, and that they are as integral to his strange, stark vision of the world as are those slate skies over muddied fields.
Sure to be hampered by smallscreen airings, the series sports ravishing widescreen cinematography by d.p. Guillaume Deffontaines (who also shot Dumont’s previous “Camille Claudel 1915”), much of it in long, elegantly choreographed master shots.