To be sure, there's a playfulness and lightness to dour French moralist Bruno Dumont's twisted take on detective thrillers. But that alone isn't enough to explain or justify the dazzling encomiums that have been poured over P'tit Quinquin since its unveiling at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight in 2014.
And while it's true that it is of a piece with the director's recent run of oblique meditations on life, it's also true that the humour and playfulness do come off occasionally as uneasy and even bitter. After all, this portrait of a small rural community as a microcosm of France, with its Little Britain-like oddities seen through a garrulous, rebellious teenager (Alane Delhaye, the titular Quinquin) with too much time on his hands, extends Mr. Dumont's general theme that most everyone in the world is an idiot coursing through life unaware of its true meaning.
That includes the investigators assigned to the mysterious, sinister murders taking place in the community. But, of course, nothing is what quite what it seems, despite the director's leisurely pace and calm surveying of the "remoteness" and "backwardness" of the place suggesting a double-edged sword between fondness and derision.
By now, it is well known that P'tit Quinquin started life as a four-part series for French cable channel ARTE, one that has found commercial release outside the Hexagon as a theatrical feature without any change to its structure and storytelling - the four episodes are simply laid end-to-end as a single, 200-minute feature. It's yet another sign of the progressive blurring of lines between the formats, and a realisation that Mr. Dumont has not approached the smaller screen any differently.
His long takes, reliance on non-professional actors and long-winded, oblique approach to storytelling remain intact, the difference being he has here more time to delve into the idiossyncrasies of the Calais region and also to create more of a feel for the place and the mood everything takes place in. And if you're looking for P'tit Quinquin to actually wrap up neatly the murder plot at its heart - in short: locals are being found dead, broken up into pieces, inside equally dead cows or in symbolic positions - don't really expect it.
As you should know from Mr. Dumont's usual work - Outside Satan particularly comes to mind - he doesn't "do" standard, linear narrative (though, mild spoiler alert, there is a resolution of sorts). Instead, the film matches his usual dour gravitas with an unusually surreal brand of nonsense, a kind of slow-motion slapstick mostly seen through the apparently bungling investigation of local cops Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Carpentier (Philippe Jore).
Their strange tics and non-sequiturs, quickly dismissed as eccentricities of incompetent hicks who have never faced anything as serious as this, eventually reveal a much more astute understanding of all the secret goings on in Boulonnais. Chaplin or Keaton come to mind, but Mr. Dumont transplants them into his usual natural settings (pretty much all of the film takes place on location) and applies them to a meditation on the human nature that has all the derisive glee of Claude Chabrol's finest bourgeois denunciations filtered through the grave, hyper-serious austerity of the director's usual plots.
For all there's to admire in P'tit Quinquin, there's also the sense that, seen as a feature, the four episodes could use some tightening and as a whole extend the director's usual territory without truly adding it much that is new or fascinating to his work. Which also means something else: that a "normal" Bruno Dumont film can be much more of a groundbreaking proposition on the small screen than in the theatre.
Cast Alane Delhaye, Lucy Caron, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore
Director and screenwriter Bruno Dumont; cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines (colour, widescreen); costumes Alexandra Charles; editors Mr. Dumont and Basile Belkhiri; producers Jean Bréhat, Rachid Bouchareb and Muriel Merlin; production companies 3B Productions and ARTE France in co-production with Pictanovo and Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains
Screened February 3rd 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)