Philippe Tullier and Emmanuel Schotté in Humanité.
(© 1999 Winstar Cinema. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Watching Humanité is a grueling experience, not because it is tedious or boring, but because it places us so deeply within the memory of its hero, a small town police officer named Pharaon De Winter, that we have no choice but to succumb to the whim of his recollection. Itís not an easy job. Characters fade in and out of focus. Trivialities take on great importance while more pressing matters recede inexplicably into the background. To spend two and a half hours inside this manís head can feel like a prison sentence. But writer/director Bruno Dumont never asks us to care for or even like him. His strategy is, in fact, the reverse. He recreates De Winterís state of mind with such intensity that we get disoriented. What is real, what is imagined, what is real but distorted? We can never know for certain, and thatís what makes Humanité frustrating and intriguing. It all builds up to the final shot, which reveals everything and nothing, and which asks us to reconsider what weíve just witnessed.

The opening scene shows De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) slogging through a muddy field. He stops and collapses, his face half buried in the filth. He picks himself up, returns to his police car and plays a harpsichord sonata on the tape deck. He closes his eyes, losing himself in the music. The CB radio beeps. Thereís been a murder. Cut to a close-up of a bloody vagina, flies swarming around it. De Winter consults with other officers. He nods, mumbles a little bit, and drives off.

Thereís something bestial about De Winter. The way he emerges from the mud suggests an amphibian crawling out of the primordial stew. His senses are distorted. We hear things the way he does. The squish of mud under his feet, his heavy breathing, and the harpsichord music are all amplified. We see the womanís vagina in unblinking detail. We canít flinch because it is there, in our faces, staring back at us. Itís an unrelenting image thatís been sharpened and exaggerated by time and memory.

Bit by bit, we learn more about De Winter. We learn that he lives with his mother in a depressed working-class town. He talks in a strange monotone that is slow and measured. It makes us wonder if heís retarded. His only friends seem to be Domino (Severine Caneele), a young woman who works in a factory, but who spends most of her time loitering outside her house, and Joseph (Philippe Tullier), Dominoís boyfriend. We also learn that De Winter once had a girlfriend and a baby who have both died.

Poster artwork for Humanité.
[click photo for larger version]

One day, he watches Domino and Joseph have sex. Itís a messy coupling with much fumbling and panting. We see everything from the first kiss, through all the pumping, and up to the final screams: there are no cuts. De Winter watches silently. He doesnít take voyeuristic pleasure, nor does he find it remotely amusing. He regards sex with a strange combination of revulsion and fascination. Itís a dirty act, like going to the bathroom, but somehow, he canít look away.

Dumont has left in the parts of life that most directors would cut out, or never film at all. The awkward moments where we donít know what to say, the silent ones by ourselves, the purely physical ones in which bodies come together, do their business and part. They are all on display in their full, unedited glory. De Winter is keenly aware of this negative space. He pays more attention to these moments (an afternoonís bike ride lets him silently observe the French countryside) than he does to the murder investigation. Itís as if heís avoiding a bad memory by concentrating on the events preceding and following it.

Domino is strangely drawn to him. She invites him on her dates with Joseph, as if she were taking pity on the village idiot. They go to the beach one weekend, and thereís a shot of the three of them staring out to the sea. Dumont holds the shot with unrelenting tightness. Itís a stark, beautiful image Ė a mnemonic snapshot that is emblazoned in De Winterís mind. While Domino isnít attracted to De Winter, sheís curious about his sex life. At one point, she offers him her body. He rejects her, and as in an earlier scene, conjures up an image of a vagina ravaged by male brutality.

The murder investigation almost feels like an afterthought. Working with a corpulent police chief whoís always perspiring, De Winter interviews a gallery of locals who are either dim-witted or unwilling to help. The inquest goes nowhere. Everyone loses interest, including De Winter. Small details overshadow major events. In one scene, De Winter finds a farmerís pig more interesting than the farmer he is supposed to interview.

As De Winter, first time actor Emmanuel Schotté doesnít act so much as he lets the movie act upon him. Heís the proverbial blank slate Ė expressionless and quasi-mute. Dumont uses him as a subject on whom he projects everything. Itís an ambitious effort and it would have worked if Dumont only wanted to portray De Winter as a psychotic. But the undeniable human element calls for more and Schotte has neither the face nor the voice for it. As Domino, Séverine Caneele provides the much needed emotional balance to Schotteís stolidity. Her sharp, angular face is neither beautiful nor homely. It arrests us with its honesty. Her body is voluptuous and a bit ravaged, and sheís not ashamed of it. Her final scene is the movieís most emotionally direct. Having learned who the murderer is, she lets loose a torrent of tears and mucus as her face balls up into a tight red rage.

Humanité has confounded audiences worldwide. Audiences at Cannes booed it, but the jury liked it enough to give it three major awards, including best actor (Schotté), best actress (Caneele), and the Grand Jury Prize. In a recent interview, Dumont explained that he is forever "filming boring and uninteresting thingsÖ itís the linking of images that makes things beautiful." True to form, Humanitéís story expands amoeba-like, absorbing characters, places and events that surround Pharaon De Winterís existence. In isolation, each piece is ordinary, but connected they add up to something thatís not only weirdly fascinating, but alive and sadly human.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]

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