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.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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