Awarded three prizes by the David Cronenberg-headed jury at Cannes in 1999, Bruno Dumont's Humanité was--to put it mildly--not well received by most American critics. An acquaintance who saw it there described it to me as a horribly botched Bresson imitation: a bad film, yet a fascinating one to discuss. But once it arrived at some North American festivals in the fall of '99, the buzz began turning around. And now that I've seen Humanité, I can testify that it's one more reason not to trust the would-be gatekeepers of American film culture.
While Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman has recently cited Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels) and Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) as the only major foreign filmmakers to have arrived in the past ten years (one wonders whether he's aware that von Trier began working long before the Nineties began), Dumont has gone ahead and made the kind of ambitious, difficult work that earned the postwar European cinema its cachet. I don't begrudge Gleiberman his personal taste (even if I strongly disagree with it), but these kinds of narrow-minded declarations are a large part of the reason that companies like Miramax and Fine Line take so few chances with foreign films these days. Love it or hate it, Humanité is no ordinary movie, and Americans are positively lucky to have a chance to see it.
Despite a premise that could have come out of any number of cheap detective novels or movies of the week, Humanité concentrates more on character than on plot. Its protagonist is Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), a small-town police detective who lives with his mother. Since the deaths of his girlfriend and child two years ago, Winter has been unable to connect with other people, although he tries hardest with next-door neighbor Domino (Séverine Caneele). Clearly attracted to her, he nevertheless seems content to just hang out with her and her obnoxious boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier). On top of all this, Winter is called to investigate the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose corpse is discovered in a field.
If Humanité could be boiled down to its essence, that essence would be the face of nonprofessional actor Emmanuel Schotté. Along with Caneele, Schotté won an acting prize at Cannes, a move that infuriated the film's detractors. Their complaint that Schotté was basically playing himself may be true, as suggested by his appearance at the Cannes awards ceremony, where he displayed the exact same mannerisms that he had in the film. But it doesn't matter: His unglamorously awkward screen presence is every bit as exhilarating in its way as Julia Roberts's star turn in Erin Brockovich. At first, Schotté reminded me of Andy Kaufman's Eastern European persona, but he eventually reveals himself to be an amazingly expressive performer, though perhaps not a particularly versatile one. His bugged-out eyes, dazed and deeply anguished, are as haunting as any pair I've ever seen onscreen, and his performance hearkens back to the high points of silent cinema. With little dialogue in the film (most of it consisting of banal small talk), Schotté allows his face and body to do the talking.
Dumont's debut feature, Life of Jesus, combined a social realist portrait of unemployed and racist French youth with a nod to Bressonian spirituality, but Humanité pushes society even further into the background, and the Important Themes forward. This is probably why it has pissed off so many people: The severity and rigor of filmmakers such as Bergman, Dreyer, and Tarkovsky have simply fallen out of fashion. (Dumont's widescreen landscapes owe so much to Tarkovsky that I kept expecting a five-minute tracking shot of someone walking across a field.) If anything, the dialogue in Humanité seems less pretentious than in some of the films by those masters, being not so heavy-handed about spirituality and morality.
If it hadn't already been taken, A Moment of Innocence would be the perfect title for Humanité, the best film about purity of heart since Breaking the Waves. Its story comes down to one basic situation: A group of people suddenly discover evil in their midst. Among Dumont's many debts to Bresson is his tendency to unite the physical and metaphysical. He never shows violence onscreen, yet his introduction of the corpse--through a close-up of her bloody vagina--is so startling and appalling that I didn't register it for several seconds. In Life of Jesus, Dumont included extreme close-ups of penetration to emphasize the animal nature of the sex act, and he treats fornication much the same way here. Tullier and Caneele have several explicit sex scenes, while Schotté's character seems strangely asexual and childlike. Still, despite the Christian references in Dumont's films, he never contrasts the supposed sanctity of spirit (represented by Winter) and the filth of the body (represented by Domino). Even if Winter never has sex, his yearning for physical connection comes through in other ways. Although he snaps back at his mother when she insults Domino, he rarely speaks his mind; instead, he communicates mostly through touch. (A few critics have suggested that Winter is retarded.)
For all its accomplishments, Humanité is occasionally absurd, especially during the scene in which Winter suddenly levitates in his garden. The finale, as ambiguous as it is moving, seems likely to provoke as many arguments as the "redemptions" that ended Breaking the Waves and Bad Lieutenant. But who needs instant certainty about every element of a film in order to value it? Perfection can be suffocating, and Humanité--imperfections included--is among the most vital films to turn up this year.