Funny peculiar: the young cast of P’tit Quinquin.
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Bruno Dumont's P’tit Quinquin is like an austere, French Twin Peaks

Dumont isn’t satirising small-town small-mindedness so much as trying to understand how it functions – where it starts, what inflames it.

P’tit Quinquin (15)
dir: Bruno Dumont

The writer-director Bruno Dumont has claimed as his own the flat landscapes, ­dismal towns and featureless beaches near Calais for close to 20 years. Watching his films, you can’t help thinking: “He’s welcome to them.” His 1997 debut, La vie de Jésus, showed disenfranchised, anvil-faced teenagers taking out their grievances on anyone who wasn’t white. Not much has changed in his peculiar murder mystery P’tit Quinquin.

Although it was made before the current migrant crisis in Calais, the film is alert to the sorts of tensions which exacerbated that situation. But by introducing absurdist notes into the drama, it marks a departure for Dumont, who generally has not been associated with turning frowns upside down. It would be wrong to call P’tit Quinquin an outright comedy, yet the surprising aspect is that his usual formula (poverty, suffering and religious symbolism plus inclement weather) needs only the smallest of tweaks to nudge it from misery to mirth.

As P’tit Quinquin begins, the cops are mulling over a dead cow. It is what you might call a low-steaks crime, or promising material for a moo-dunnit. Except that parts of a dismembered human body, minus the head, appear to have been inserted into the animal. Overseeing the case is Captain van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost). Neither his physical appearance – he’s like Groucho Marx with wire-wool hair and a Chaplin moustache – nor his idea of police work inspires much confidence.

Van der Weyden’s SAS-style roll across the ground while under sniper fire wouldn’t pass muster in a kindergarten music-and-movement class. His investigative technique involves staring blankly, twitching uncontrollably and inserting police clichés into incongruous contexts (“A cow carcass at Chicken Pass? Let’s roll!”). In the immediate aftermath of a shooting, the captain asks a local farmer if he can have a go on his horse. Nothing to do with the case; he just always wanted to ride one as a child, you see.

The captain is the only explicitly comic creation in a dour and mournful film. (It is rather as if Mr Bean had been parachuted into Borgen.) P’tit Quinquin himself (Alane Delhaye) is an adolescent bruiser with a brow like an overhanging cliff ledge. Capable of extraordinary tenderness towards his young sweetheart, Eve (Lucy Caron), he is also a belligerent racist who warns a young black boy, Mohamed (Baptiste Anquez), to “stay away from our women” during a showdown at the dodgems.

When a second cow turns up, also containing body parts, and the case appears to touch on an affair between the wife of a local farmer and her black lover, the same toxic attitudes start to surface in other parts of the town. In his interactions with immigrant labourers van der Weyden shows himself to be insensitive as well as inept. Small wonder that those manners have trickled down to the local children, or that Quinquin’s preferred sanctuary is a concrete bunker emblazoned with a swastika.

The injection of oddball humour does nothing to lessen the seriousness of the subject matter or the compassion with which Dumont regards his characters’ hardscrabble lives. What it does instead is to complicate the tone of the film, so that we can never be comfortable in any scene, never certain whether to laugh or wince – or both. (It’s a small joke that the film’s one musical refrain is a song called “’Cause I Knew”, when no one on screen or in the audience can be certain of anything.) Dumont isn’t satirising small-town small-mindedness so much as trying to understand how it functions – where it starts, what inflames it. The film has the feel of a more austere take on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Eeriness rubs shoulders with existentialism.

That is not the only point of overlap with Lynch’s televisual landmark. P’tit Quinquin was also made for TV, so what audiences are getting here is four 50-minute episodes lumped together. There is no doubt that Dumont thinks and shoots cinematically: those eggshell skies and metallic seas need space to sadden the eye properly. If there is one element that weakens the case for this as cinema rather than television, it is old Captain van der Weyden.

A little of him, spread over four nights, would have been tolerable. At one sitting, he brings to the binge-watching experience a hint of the bulimic. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear