Who would have guessed that Bruno Dumont, the divisive French filmmaker best known for oblique, rurally set dramas (including 1999’s Humanité and 2006’s Flanders, both Grand Prix winners at Cannes), would draw renewed vigor from the loose aesthetic of serial television?
Li’l Quinquin, which aired in France as a four-part miniseries, exploits the average TV viewer’s familiarity with one-off jokes and untied loose ends, and turns out something rare and rewarding: a Dumont film that paints its small-town milieu with as much humor as violence (though there’s a fair dose of that, too) and finds some tenderness in life’s absurdities.
Li’l Quinquin follows two cartoonish detectives, the wiry, efficient Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) and his Chaplin-esque, tic-addled superior, Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), as they attempt to track down a murderer who’s been stuffing human body parts inside bovine carcasses. Their investigation leads them to interview oddball provincial characters, including Li’l Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), the tiny leader of a group of young ruffians, who terrorizes his grandparents but has a soft spot for his girlfriend, Eve (Lucy Caron).
These crisscrossing stories draw odd parallels between the impulsive misanthropy of youth and the adults’ fatigued fatalism — Quinquin shoots off firecrackers for emphasis, much like Van der Weyden fires pistol rounds into the air. Dumont shows a certain relish for images of severed body parts and bloody cow orifices but also has an eye for beauty, drenching his lovingly composed shots in bleached-out sunshine.
Like his other films, Quinquin operates less on suspense than the aimless drift of circumstance (as a feature, this one clocks in at nearly three and a half hours). Yet even the gags are stamped with Dumont’s pessimism: There’s poison in this oblivious town, shown most pointedly in the kids’ dogged racism toward a young Muslim boy. Some threads of this story end in punchlines, and others in tragedy, but most of it simply rots.