A tale of compassion and empathy that will trigger impatience and intolerance in many viewers, “Humanity” traces a few days in the life of a small-town cop who reacts to distress and suffering like a flesh-and-blood tuning fork. A cumulatively devastating portrait that goes right to the brink of pretentiousness, pic nevertheless sustains an intimate, uncompromisingly authentic tone throughout its overlong running time. There is a stark, raw truthfulness to the imagery and slender story that demands respect but can also provoke unintentional laughter, as pic’s debut in Cannes proved.
Scripter-helmer Bruno Dumont’s 1997 first feature, “The Life of Jesus,” racked up international awards, but current effort, set in the same mostly dreary vicinity in the north of France, will be a much harder sell.
It’s difficult to imagine another film producing country besides France where this particularly obstinate blend of lofty ideas, rotgut sex, majestic framing and minimalist thesping could possibly have made it to the bigscreen at this length and pace.
As with “The Life of Jesus,” an indelible sense of place infuses every frame. Pic lovingly depicts details so glaringly mundane that, given the widescreen treatment, they become exotic. Characters are not big on chitchat, and when they do deign to say something it often registers as perfunctory to the point of silliness. Methodical bordering on monotonous, pic is nonetheless punctuated with strange, earthy moments, its mission nothing less than to examine a man tormented by his unfiltered responses to the full range of human behavior — from his own unrequited love to the mystery of random evil as embodied in a senseless crime.
Thirtysomething bachelor Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotte) lives and works in Bailleul, a working-class locale where everyone is obliged to kill time and somebody has killed an 11-year-old girl. Although he’s a cop, Pharaon is astonished that anyone is capable of raping and murdering a child; opening scenes show him stumbling across the stark horizon, tripping on muddy ground and hugging the earth, so visceral is his dismay.
Whoever’s in charge of judging emotional aptitude for police work was obviously off the premises the day Pharaon was hired. Crime, cruelty and suffering fill him with grief on the cellular level — or so one gathers from his plaintive expression. He evinces the goodwill and loyalty of a puppy dog, and with his plodding walk and stilted delivery seems more a candidate for village idiot than plainclothes detective.
Desperately attracted to his 23-year-old neighbor, Domino (Severine Caneele), Pharaon tags along on outings with her virile boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier). Non-pro thesps lend their warts-and-all demeanors to scenes that require exposure: from the police chief’s wrinkled bull neck to the lead actress’ vulva in a sustained head-on pose that echoes the dead girl’s mutilated naked body.
Domino and Joseph couple several times for the camera with a rutting, gasping veracity that makes recent attention-getters such as Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” appear laughably meek and artificial in comparison. Caneele’s fleshy unselfconsciousness is stunning.
There is an expectant tension that many will equate with tedium as the murder investigation proceeds so slowly that a passing snail would seem like Road Runner himself. The payoff is potent and peculiar, although pic needn’t last nearly this long.
Lensing is a studied, deliberate blend of exquisite long shots and more intimate framing, including plenty of extreme close-ups.