Cannes Diary #6
Bruno Dumont has made a comedy.
As unlikely as that idea may seem to those who are familiar with his work, the leading French filmmaker is in Cannes with Li’l Quinquin (P’tit Quinquin), a four-episode TV series screening here as a 197-minute feature film. The story revolves around a pair of bumbling cops (and a group of observant kids) investigating a string of gruesome murders happening at a small coastal town in the north of France.
Dumont worked with a number of locals, shooting in a region near Calais seen in a number of his films: La Vie de Jésus (97), L’Humanité (99), and Flanders (06). This time, however, he’s looking at his homeland with an overt sense of humor.
“These are the landscapes and the people I know,” Dumont explained the other day during a Q&A following the first Cannes screening of Li’l Quinquin. “It’s not even a conscious choice. It’s my home, my land where I’m from. I love these people.” When casting locals, Dumont said that he imposed a 20-kilometer perimeter for himself to make sure that those depicted on screen were authentic to the region. “They had to belong to the place to sound right. People can only sound right if the landscape sounds the same as they do.”
With Li’l Quinquin, which will air on French television in four parts this September and will screen as a feature film at film festivals, Dumont said he is mixing comedy with aspects of life that inspire him in his other work.
“To make a film, I need to go back to what nurtures me, that is: the relationship between art and religion in painting,” Dumont said during the Cannes Q&A. “There’s no message other than that when we laugh, we laugh for ourselves.”
One audience member in Cannes didn’t laugh at Dumont’s creation, and she stood up at the end of the discussion to call him out. She said she felt “dizzy as in your other films,” but that she didn’t laugh.
“I’m sorry if it didn’t make you laugh,” Dumont responded calmly. “Your relationship to a film and to cinema is determined by yourself, so what’s relevant is you.”
Listening to Dumont’s comments about laughter, religion, and art here in Cannes, I was inspired to hear more, so yesterday, I sat down with him for a half-hour to discuss Li’l Quinquin. Much of our time was spent on translation through an interpreter, and what follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
You were talking in the Q&A yesterday about how the relationship between art and religion in painting is something that nurtures you. I wonder if you could elaborate on that idea.
I think that art works as a substitute for religion, and when we speak about the meat of spirituality, this is exactly where it lays. Religion is outdated in a way, but I believe that man needs spirituality and this is going to be given to them nowadays by art, and cinema belongs to art. There is also some spirituality in the comedy, as a genre. And I believe, and I hope, that cinema will quit the realm of entertainment to actually contribute to civilization in the future.
You mentioned painting in particular as a place where you find this relationship. Can you speak to that and its importance to you as well?
I think painting in particular is in this relationship with spirituality. Painting also is the best type of image that you can meditate on.
I think that we are on the eve of understanding what cinema can be. We don’t know yet. We are still in the beginning of this learning process of how to read a film image. Because, as it is moving, I think it is far more difficult to realize what it means exactly, even to film critics.
The model for your American cinema is Italian paintings. Because the Italian paintings are the paintings of the ideal. I am the contrary. My inspiration grows from Flemish painting and the kind of painting that concentrates on the specificity of individuals so as to find the ideal. It’s quite striking when you see American Hollywood movies, like [those by] Cecil B. DeMille—you can actually see the Raphael paintings that are behind [them]. It’s really striking.
Then let’s talk about the individuals in Li’l Quinquin. Let’s talk about the police characters. Did the idea of these characters start before the series?
Everything started with the idea of the series. And then a comedy series. And then obviously you have the plot. The plot is the usual rather academic plot of a crime series. What I do is a parody. That is, I play with the very memory that viewers have of this genre, of the crime series, and it is the characters that I cast that give birth to the comedic effect, the humor. These two policemen are offbeat policemen and this is my choice.
Part of the offbeat nature of these characters is not only the way that they go about trying to solve these crimes but in the casting of the specific individuals. They are distinctive, they are distinctive-looking, one of them has a kind of tic. They remind us, at least for me, of silent-film characters. Can you speak to the casting process, finding the right people, and what draws you either to these people or people in general?
Yes, there is something about the way they look. But it is all very crafted, very fabricated.
This comes with the mise en scène. They are in a way modified and made entirely more bizarre by the mise en scène. When I choose people, [I] make sure that they are going to have within themselves the strength, the capacity both physically and in the way they express themselves, to be able to do this, to be able to be in a way shaped by the mise en scène.
It has to do with their sensibility, it has to do with the way they speak, but my job is actually to disarticulate them. Because this is where the comedy lays, in this capacity to break the articulation of things.
There was a woman at the end of the Q&A who stood up and said she didn’t find your movie funny. And I really liked your response to her. Your movies provoke an audience. In this one, it provokes laughter. Some of your other movies provoke other responses and still sometimes laughter, at least for me, maybe in moments that are uncomfortable or challenging. I’m curious to ask you what kind of opportunity this comedy series gives you as a filmmaker to provoke different kinds of responses.
I think that there is a real strength to comedy as a genre. Comedy is a genre that has a strong scope of expression and a strong capacity of expression. And in a way laughter works as some kind of explosion. The laughter reveals hidden zones of human nature.
The capacity to have this explosion, this burst, happening is to me very important, and it reveals zones of falseness, zones of ambiguity. This is the role of film, of cinema.
Cinema reveals—it is an element of revelation, of our real humanity. Funny films can also be extremely powerful—they can give you a lot of information and they’re not only something that can be funny and stupid. They can be funny and very fruitful.
Following up on that, it’s very interesting to go to a film by Bruno Dumont and to be told it’s a comedy in advance. It’s a clue to the audience that it’s okay to laugh—you’re telling us to expect to laugh. I wonder how as a filmmaker you appreciate the opportunity to play with that. In your other films, we’re not told whether we can laugh. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t.
The main thing is the desire of the people to go and see a film. And this is a very mysterious thing. You don’t know why people go and see a film, or don’t go. I think it’s interesting to tell people you’re not going to be bored, you’re going to have fun.
Similarly, I want to ask you about the relationship between television and cinema. I watched this series as one work in one sitting, but it will be seen by many people differently, in segments. How was this process different for you as a filmmaker? Is television cinema?
There isn’t any difference when you’re making it, in the process. There’s a camera, there’s actors, there’s a microphone. When you make movies, they get screened on television. Are they still films when they’re screened on television or are they something else?
I really don’t care about this because I think P’tit Quinquin, the way you’ve seen it, is a movie, because it was in a movie theater, it was on a big screen. What really affects the work is that as a series, it’s longer. But you had long novels, like with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and you had the series of Monet paintings of the haystacks. As the film has been done by Arte, it cannot be distributed in theaters in France, but it can have distribution in theaters abroad.
For instance, it could have distribution in cinemas in America, and it would give the American audience the experience of a film. I think any film is stronger when it is seen in a movie theater because it is always better on a big screen. But film also exists on television, and it could also exist on your mobile device if you wanted it to.