Friday 24 July 2020

Smalltown creeds: "Coincoin and the Extra-Humans"

Of all the work of all the auteurs crossing over into TV, the project Bruno Dumont initiated with 2014's P'tit Quinquin ranks among the most bizarre. If not quite the full Twin Peaks - rooted firmly as it was in the soil of Dumont's beloved Nord-Pas de Calais stomping ground - here was television that was still many, many baguettes short of un pique-nique, as close as any show has come to replicating the experience of being a spectator at the asylums of yore. Miraculously, someone at Arte greenlit Season Two, and so here we go round again, several years on. (As with P'tit QuinquinCoincoin and the Extra-Humans has been reedited for international release; it now emerges as a two-part streaming option.) Formerly known as Quinquin, Coincoin (Alane Delhaye) is no longer p'tit, rather a small town boy racer, possessed of rough edges - including the most extraordinarily asymmetrical nose ever filmed - but also a heart of gold. His former sweetheart Eve (Lucy Caron) has taken up with a farmer's daughter. Meanwhile, police chief van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) - whose catchphrase "C'est quoi, ce bordel?" (what the hell is this now?) seems newly applicable in 2020 - and his stuntdriving sidekick Carpentier (Philippe Jore) appear more buffoonish than ever, constitutionally unable to enter or exit a scene in conventional fashion. There are new arrivals: a crew of migrant workers who've set up camp on the outskirts of town, and - announced by splats of oily gunk that fall from the sky - actual aliens, taking the form of the locals and thereby only adding to the mounting suspicion. If you'd told me around the turn of the century that the Bruno Dumont who'd just signed off on La vie de Jésus and L'humanité would some day wind up overseeing a slapstick remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I'd have told you to stop messing around.

What follows is every bit as bizarre as its predecessor, but the extra episodes permit a better understanding of Dumont's methods and intentions - which may just be to subvert his recognisably serious-austere framing with some hyper-silly content. The Quinquins represent a continuation of that broad French comic tradition: a recurring homage to the collapsing-house joke from Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. is about as subtle as it gets. The alien hosts birth their doubles with loud farts; while poking around the refugee camp referred to as "the Jungle" by townies in thrall to a Front National-like populist party, van der Weyden contrives to pull one shack down around him, emerging pop-eyed through a hole in the canvas roof; and a chase between the cops and a couple of teenage flyposters comes to a screeching halt after the pursuers receive a faceful of that extraterrestrial goo. On a scene-by-scene basis, the project is entirely in thrall to the strange, fitful rhythms of its non-professional performers: as they stammer, flinch and repeat themselves, falling into the conversational equivalent of Carpentier's stuntdriving (lopsided, circular, mindless), the whole shapes up as a series of sight gags set deep in the most deadpan of dead air. Most serials owe a debt of some kind to Dickens, the better to pull us in and string us along; the Quinquins are Beckettian, in that you're just about getting fed up with their wilful strangeness when they smack you upside the head with a glorious spacehopper of a joke. It's certainly novel to have characters who are too dim to realise they're in the midst of an alien invasion - who, even when they find themselves in conversation with their other self, wind up going round and round on the same points - though the funniest aspect here may be how the mise-en-scène quietly fills up with splotches of alien goo.

The risk, as with all auteur-driven TV, is that Dumont is amusing himself and nobody else, yet several of the year's biggest laughs - all the louder, given the generally miserable circumstances the sequel emerges into - elevate Coincoin some way above The Eddy, The Get Down and all those other Netflix follies that went unloved and unfinished. It is true that it's somewhat misshapen, as a single sit: visually widescreen, playing out under the kind of big skies you only get on the coast, yet narratively televisual, or at least it would be if Dumont set any stall whatsoever in conventional episodic structure. He knows he has at an ace up his sleeve, in that van der Weyden - as played by the spasming Pruvost, the most singular character in modern detective fiction, the closest we have to a new Clouseau - will himself be cloned (or "clowned", as he insists on putting it) in the course of proceedings. Anyone who chuckled their way through P'tit Quinquin will know that two van der Weydens for the price of one is quite the selling point. It's funny when they end up talking at cross-purposes ("this is absurd"); when they square off, handguns drawn, towards the conclusion, it's very nearly as iconic a moment for the French arthouse as the De Niro-Pacino face-off at the end of Heat was for the commercial American cinema. Around him/them, however, there remains a lot of repetition to get used to - like that Keaton homage, another joke that falls from the sky - and time to ponder whether Dumont isn't playing the same dangerous game with his migrant characters as Michael Haneke was caught playing in 2017's Happy End: rendering them a mute Other, inserted only so their Blackness can be paralleled with that of the alien goo ("It's not from here").

Well, I pondered, and the more time I spent in this world, the more its misshapenness struck me as deliberate and affectionate, a means of better accommodating characters of all stripes, shades and shapes. That openness to the elements would also account for the odd moments of tenderness, melancholy, even profundity that drift in and dissipate like microclimates. "Girls are complicated," sighs Coincoin, staring into the middle distance, to which Eve immediately retorts: "No, boys are too simple." Late on, van der Weyden tries to explain to Carpentier what's so uncanny about being confronted by one's own doppelgänger: "Imagine seeing yourself as I see you. It's unthinkable. The void." That idea - of seeing yourself as an Other - is uppermost in Dumont's thinking here; it may be the most effective weapon we have against the insular nationalism that lurks in the background of these projects, just waiting to lure in characters this naive. At any rate, returning to this backwater and training a camera this long on those oddbods, outcasts and misfits strikes me as a pretty formidable act of solidarity and love. And if that sounds more theoretical than practical, consider how turning their patrol car on two wheels - flipping everything off-kilter - forces the otherwise solitary-seeming van der Weyden and Carpentier together, not least in some new perspective on the flatlands they've been charged with protecting. As confirmed by Coincoin and the Extra-Humans' finale - weirdly joyous, elevating us even as it drops us squarely back in the turmoil of 2020 - with the right person or people at your side, even the Apocalypse itself might come to seem like a carnival.

Coincoin and the Extra-Humans is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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