Over a run of films from 1997’s La Vie de Jesus through 2006’s Flanders and beyond, the writer-director Bruno Dumont has gone in search of whatever miracles can be occasioned in the world nowadays – a quest that arguably peaked around the time a character was returned to life in 2009’s Hadewijch, a resurrection worthy of sincere comparison with Dreyer or Bresson. How do you top that?
Well, Dumont was invited by French broadcaster ARTE to expand his vision over a four-part television series, and the result – opening here in one single, 200-minute chunk – is an eccentric murder-mystery with echoes of such previous auteur-TV as Lynch’s Twin Peaks and von Trier’s The Kingdom. It’s not just timely but significant that its action should unfold over the summer holidays: it appears the work of a serious talent properly mucking about, resulting in as much a provocation as anything else in this director’s filmography.
As individual chapter readings (“La Bête Humaine”, “Au Coeur du Mal”) suggest, P’tit Quinquin does sort of tessellate with what’s gone before. Again, we’re in rural northwest France, in a little hamlet near the Normandy coast, where the local kids have nothing much to do save run wild. Our eponymous hero, young Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), leads a gang who could be the kids from E.T. – there’s a fat one, a skinny one, and a girl – were they not borderline feral, tossing firecrackers everywhere and continually roughing one another up.
New distraction is found when someone starts feeding human body parts to local cows, leading the foursome to take to their BMXs and shadow – read: get in the way of – the ensuing police investigation. Dumont’s most astounding gag, however, is that the officer sent to restore law and order – Bernard Pruvost’s Captain van der Weyden – can’t even keep his own body under control: his jerky movements and pronounced facial tics suggest some form of St. Vitus’s Dance, or Jonathan Pryce impersonating John Shuttleworth.
Van der Weyden arguably isn’t so far from the oddball lawman of L'Humanité; Dumont’s tilling the same realist farmland, just a couple of acres over. Maybe, after La Vie de Jesus and L'Humanité, nobody thought to ask Dumont whether he wanted to try something lighter; maybe those refuseniks who found those films’ strain for spiritual truth laughable spotted what the rest of us didn’t.
Either way, with the extended running time, you feel Dumont relaxing into this world, loosening up in a way that after his earlier, gloomier work comes as a miracle in itself. P’tit Quinquin makes for a pretty lackadaisical procedural – a joke that gets only funnier as the bodycount rises and van der Weyden appears no closer to identifying a suspect – choosing instead to parallel the kids’ inquiries with those of the grown-ups.
Anyone worried that Dumont has turned cosy can rest easy: traces of something edgier remain. In so far as this enterprise has a conventional throughline, it concerns the tetchiness that exists between the village’s white and non-white kids, which spills over into outright racism, and then a needless tragedy; it’s heavily suggested that the community’s insularity might explain the murders. (It might also explain the physiognomy of all present.)
The slackening of the narrative line allows the characters to run loose – like animals let off the leash – and for Dumont to better observe them in their natural environment: everybody’s at play (and slay) in the fields of the Lord, and the final moments suggest what we’ve been watching have merely been the opening, earthly skirmishes in an ongoing cosmological battle. (In this respect, P’tit Quinquin is very much like Twin Peaks; a second season has been mooted.)
There can’t, even so, have been that many series with so vivid a feel for a region’s faces and places, for its rituals and other idiosyncrasies, its ambient light and sound. You’d struggle to declare it a masterpiece – you’d have to pick your jaw off the floor, for starters – but it stands as a noteworthy fluke, a singular turn of events even seasoned arthouse observers could never have seen coming. Catch it now, in one go in the cinema, before it turns up on BBC4 over consecutive Saturdays and everyone goes mad for it.
(MovieMail, July 2015)
P'tit Quinquin is available on DVD via New Wave Films, and to stream via Curzon Home Cinema; a sequel, Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, will be available to stream from Friday and reviewed here this week.