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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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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