In “Li’l Quinquin,” director and writer Bruno Dumont’s spectacular four-part mini-series made for French TV, his usual style and concerns remain constant. But it’s as if he simply switched between the famous theatrical masks and revealed the absurdist humor–verbal and visual–that had been lurking just outside the frame in his earlier films. The humor here, pitch black, is the inverse of the film’s gorgeous, slightly overexposed photography and pale palette.
In a small, seemingly empty French farming village on the English Channel, female body parts, sans the head, are found inside a dead cow that somehow made its way into a graffitied bunker at the beach. Two county cops are assigned to investigate, Captain Rogier Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), his eyes, caterpillar eyebrows and head in perpetual motion, and his subordinate, Lieutenant Rudy Carpentier (Philippe Jore), bearing a striking resemblance to Tim Blake Nelson, but round-shouldered and with many fewer teeth. Van der Weyden (a complex man, nicknamed “The Fog” by other cops) assesses the situation and says, “We’re at the heart of evil, Carpentier.”
It’s the beginning of summer vacation (but still chilly and endlessly overcast) and blonde and pasty young prankster Li’l Quinquin (Alane Delhaye)–another kid with a bike (and pockets full of firecrackers)–is free. He hangs out with Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron), his “puppy love” (who with uncharacteristic tenderness he calls “mon amour”) and his two budding-deliquent buddies. Regular activities–visiting the friterie, riding the bumper cars in the town’s small amusement park and harassing two local Arab boys (xenophobia they seem unlikely to grow out of)–leave them plenty of time for watching the detectives, with a surprising lack of fear.
A funny (quite peculiar, which is quite ha-ha) funeral service is held for the victim, Mrs. Irène Lebleu, a farmer’s wife. Li’l Quinquin (you hold mass with the altar boy you have, not the one you wish you had), with his permanent smirk (only partially determined by his facial deformity), is repeatedly given a thumbs up by the inexperienced, bemused young priest, who keeps ducking down behind the altar. The congregation shares in the strangeness–a woman and several girls wear an identical outfit perfect for Russian figure skaters and a man’s face is hidden in a balaclava.
The riveting weirdness piles up with the bodies–the farm wife, her lover (an Arab, also dismembered and found in a cow, at Chicken Point), her husband (in his farm’s slurry tank) and his mistress, the town’s head majorette (“whole, but dead”), luminously white, tied to a rock with lime green fishing net, at Goose Point. The Captain, moved by her voluptuousness, declares, “It’s hell on earth now, Carpentier.”
With all the suspects in the initial murder dead and new, unrelated tragedies occurring, Van der Weyden fears his case has become a metaphysical battle. He informs Carpentier, “We’re going head to head with the Devil.” In a community with hostility toward the other, Satan is the ultimate outsider.
*Dumont’s golf-type jacket is strikingly similar to those worn by his fictional detectives.