The theatrical release of Bruno Dumont’s four-part TV mini-series P’tit Quinquin was named the best film of 2014 by no less than Cahiers du Cinéma magazine. On the surface, it seems like an odd choice; Cahiers was the birthplace of auteur theory, but P’tit Quinquin is the first comedy for a director known for his unflinching explorations of the violent side of human emotionality (See his previous effort, Camille Claudel 1915, for proof). Scratch beyond the surface tics, and you’ll see what appealed to the Cahiers writers. Despite its young protagonist, Clouseau-esque antagonist and appetite for farce, P’tit Quinquin is none more Dumont, packing its ample 200 minutes with bizarre acts of violence and all-too-real portraits of rural life. Farmers, lock up your cows: Dumont est arrivé!”
From the first sight of our young lead, it’s clear we’re firmly in Dumont-land. The rural terrain of northern France is full of distinct faces, but none more so than that of our pint-sized hero Quinquin. In casting the role, part of the appeal of Alain Delhaye for Dumont had to be his surly look. His face, aged by an off-centre upper lip, conveys an exasperation not meant for one so young. His scowl sits in rigid permanence amongst a wave of chaos that’s about to hit the farming community in which he lives.
It doesn’t take much to rock a small community’s spirit, but a murder ought to do the trick, especially when the victim was dismembered and the parts were then stuffed inside a cow. Welcome to the Bruno Dumont comedy! Those odd faces so beloved of Dumont are left reeling, but Quinquin and his pals are enjoying the attention. When was the last time a helicopter came to their sleepy town, let alone carry a whole cow across the sky? Leading the investigation is Detective Van der Weyden. This intelligent-but-bumbling cop owes a debt to Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther escapades, but the exaggerated facial tics of the performance from Bernard Pruvost (another non-professional recruit to the Dumont-ian cause) lend him a memorability all his own. Indeed, his OTT gestures contrast with Delhaye’s comparatively stoic expression to enhance the inherent oddness in these character’s locale, where children and adults could be interchangeable. Van der Weyden is accompanied by Lieutenant Carpentier (Phillippe Jore) on his investigations. Each is distinctly haggard and befuddled, but their two heads together won’t see all the clues that Quinquin and his friends can. A relative lack of adult supervision (Quinquin’s parents are glimpsed relatively rarely) has led them to develop their own views and tics.
Get past the slicing and dicing and cow violations, and Dumont’s critical gaze is firmly fixed on small-town parochialism and small-mindedness. The writer-director came from a rural background of similar ilk, so he knows his subject. His observations come with a calmness and unshowy eye that helps overcome any accusations of being contrarian or harsh purely for the sake of just being so. This world feels lived in, genuinely tangible. Whether by design or the constraints of the television format, Dumont established a reality that accentuates P’tit Quinquin’s satire. The most apt comparison one could make is to Father Ted, with its takedowns of commonplace rituals and prejudices. The priestly sitcom isn’t as dark as P’tit Quinquin but there’s a common gene for poking fun in their DNA. An early funeral for one of the murder victims seals the deal on this comparison. Quinquin makes a joke of his duties as an altar boy, the middle-aged priest alternates between over-zealousness and corpsing, while the local talented teen shows her lack thereof with a brilliantly out-of-place performance of pop ballad as a hymn. These are archetypes, but they’re knowable enough to transcend accusations of cruelty. That may be harder to defend in Dumont’s use of disabled characters (most notably Quinquin’s uncle), but there’s never a sense that he’s mocking any of his characters, simply the world and viewpoints they’ve come to inhabit and espouse. Over the course of 200 minutes, we see racial, romantic and class tensions come to the fore. It’s a rare mystery that boasts red herrings as intriguing as the murders themselves. At one point, Carpentier compares the crimes to the murderous tendencies at the heart of Zola’s novel La Bête humaine (Also the title of one of P’tit Quinquin’s episodes). Van der Weyden rebuffs him, saying “We’re not here to philosophize.” Pity he feels that way; it might lead them to the answers faster.
Going into P’tit Quinquin and expecting a straightforward mystery is a fool’s errand. Dumont is clearly a Twin Peaks fan (though he claimed never to have watched it, so draw your own conclusions); both series let the mystery give way to the foibles and darkest recesses of human nature. Of course, both David Lynch and Dumont have made careers out of these explorations, but the latter has never done so with such a sense of fun as in P’tit Quinquin. One can only hope that when Dumont shuffles off this mortal coil, he dies laughing. Cow coffin optional.