Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stains and Other Things Human

l'Humanite (Bruno Dumont, France, 1999)

I'm still collecting my thoughts from the recent viewing of Bruno Dumont's l'Humanite, as excellent and as unsettling a film as I've seen since the calendar rolled over.

That unsettling part seems to be something of a trademark of Dumont's, whose Twentynine Palms also managed to induce no small amount of squirming, and even a couple of big jumps, which is much more than I can say for any putative horror film I've seen in a great while. TP was genuinely shocking in the truest sense of the word - I did not see the film's final events coming, and when they did I was suddenly bewildered and, well - completely unsettled.

In and of itself, this is an accomplishment for a contemporary filmmaker. I should state here that I'm not, nor have I ever been, a serious fan of the horror genre, domestic or otherwise, but I get the sense that I don't really need to see films like, say, the Saw franchise to understand exactly what they're on about, and what is contained therein. The label that's often applied is "torture porn," and really - what more could one want or need to know?

This is something of a not-entirely fair and dismissive argument, but I don't mind making it about films that are as blatantly mass-produced and cynically manipulative as The Hills Have Eyes and its ilk.

That being said, my mini-point is that Dumont, with Twentynine Palms, managed to make something that was truly scary in that it compelled its viewer to ask some unpleasant questions about the world, and maybe himself. It's a further accomplishment that the film also manages to be clever and atmospheric and occasionally beautiful, that is: it's an existential horror flick that is ultimately about more than just arbitrary violence and underlying emptiness - there's quite a bit of humanity (carefully observed human behavior, if you will) - in a film that could easily come across as overly dry and didactic.

I consider this to be difficult to do, since I have a fairly low tolerance for films featuring a cool, detached, existential dread, which seem to be a specialty of the French. My main counterpoint would be Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, which was too overdetermined and heavy on the audience-brutalizing for my tastes.

But I digress. l'Humanite is a much richer and deeper film than TP, and is undeniably a masterful work. It's sequence of events (it would be a stretch to call it a story) follows one Pharaon De Winter, a provincial police superintendent who is both profoundly empathic and none too bright. An eleven year old girl has been found raped and murdered in Pharaon's bucolic country town, and he's charged with finding the responsible party. Rather than focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of most police procedurals, we are instead treated to a tour of Pharaon's gloomy little corner of existence. He lives with his mother. He used to have a woman and a kid, but they're gone, possibly dead. He spends most of his free time tagging along with his sultry neighbor Domino and her boyfriend, and when he's not with them or lying in bed awake and staring at the wallpaper, he's over at the allotment, tending to his flowers. Domino, who's pretty in a sort of rough-hewn way and has an earthy sex appeal, seems to have a thing for Pharaon, and he clearly is in love with her. It's not obvious why he continues to torture himself by accompanying the couple on their various jaunts and listless exploits, but then, nothing about these characters is obvious other than their sweaty, rumpled, searching humanity.

Right away it's implied that Pharaon himself is guilty of the crime. The movie never tells us for sure, and the final shots are limit-pushing in their ambiguity, but of course it's of the essence that we're left with a feeling of uncertainty in a film like this. See, Pharaon is that special kind of hero - mysterious, a little creepy, but also childlike and teeming with barely-contained emotion. It's been said that acting is all in the eyes, and that a performance is all in the casting, and Emmanual Schotte, a nonprofessional actor, would seem here to provide irrefutable proof of those two maxims. He's got a face that seems to be capable of conveying the kind of boundlessly pure feeling that you usually only find on the mugs of dogs, and Dumont fully exploits it.

The other actors are almost as equally sublime in their ability to speak volumes through simple facial expression - the kind of reality that "real" actors spend their whole lives attempting to master. In a parallel universe, this technique of casting based upon look would be too elementary to question, but here it flies directly in the face of the theatrical tradition of acting craft, which cinema has on loan and may never decide to return. Bresson is perhaps the most famous employer of such a method - find a person who looks right, and then ask them to do very little, and forbid them to act, while the camera soaks up there pure unvarnished realness.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't - it's by no means axiomatic that using a nonactor will make a character any more real than using a seasoned professional. A nonactor's performance, or lack thereof, can make for beautifully observed cinema, but it can also be just as stagy and artificial and false as a hyperbolic scenery-chewer from an accomplished Actor. Bresson got away with more than he probably should have with this technique, but he understood its intricacies well and frequently used them to great effect. Here, it pays off in spades - the behavior is believable and feels right more often than not, even when the focus is clearly not on psychology or character, which is most of the time.

So what's it all about, then, in the end? Is Pharaon, who at times borders on saintliness, a rapist and a murderer? Or is Joseph, Domino's lout of a boyfriend, the guilty party? Maybe neither? If Dumont is interested in having a point, it might be that the assignment of guilt is an illusory crutch in the face of the world's evil. For all of the naturalism in this movie, it has the feel of a cinematic parable, with the camera giving special attention to specific images and motifs - genitals, sweat, trees, hills, mud, grass, flowers in bloom, and a profusion of faces and eyes. I appreciate this perhaps most of all about Dumont's aesthetic - it has gravitas and elegant beauty - at times, an almost minimalistic lyricism, but it's also accurate (if oblique) in its depiction of human behavior. Somehow he's managed to bridge the gap between being too laboriously symbolic and capturing believable human behavior - I would very much appreciate access to the formula he's using, thank you very much.

But I'm not sure that the point of this film is that it has a point - it's invested in a search first and foremost: an honest confrontation with the real world, and a meditation on all of its aching beauty and horrifying ugliness. There are times at which Pharaon comes to resemble a religious archetype - the spiritual seeker - a pure soul, hopelessly innocent and yet damaged, casting an imploring stare in the face of existence. All the same, it is entirely possible to read the character as one wrestling with his conscience over a very real and very terrible crime that he committed - even as he attempts to fantasize away his guilt.

To pack all of this into a single film, and to make the finish product work at all, is a major accomplishment indeed, and my hat is off to Dumont for doing so. If it's perhaps a touch too ambiguous or enigmatic, I'm willing to forgive the trespass in the name of ambition. We need more movies that set their aim so high.