Fr 1999
dir/scr Bruno Dumont
cin Yves Cape
stars Emmanuel Schotte, Severine Caneele, Philippe Tullier
147 minutes

Surely one of the slowest films ever to be commercially released – and definitely the slowest about a murder investigation – L’Humanite makes massive demands on its audience. It remains, however, necessary viewing for anyone seriously interested in the state of cinema, though many will dismiss it as the worst kind of pretentiously offensive arthouse rubbish.

The body of an eleven-year-old girl is discovered on the outskirts of Bailleul, a small town on the Franco-Belgian border. She has been raped, genitally mutilated, then murdered: the most terrible of crimes. Local policeman Pharaon de Winter (Schotte) investigates, with little success. He lusts after a neighbour, Domino (Caneele), but she’s going out with the loutish Joseph (Tullier). We discover that Pharaon, a blank-faced fortysomething living with his mother, ‘lost’ his girlfriend and child two years before…

Any competent editor could tell this ‘story’ in less than an hour, but Dumont shows no concern about pacing or plot development, dwelling on the blank moments cinema tends to skip over in the manner of Jacques Rivette’s 1997 Secret Defense. Dumont’s real subject is nothing less than an analysis of the very nature of the human condition. At two crucial stages we stand at a vast distance from the ‘action’ – the remarkable opening shot (Dumont makes clear he can make striking visual images, but largely chooses not to) shows a tiny figure crossing a rural landscape, passing from the very far left of the widescreen image to the very far right. Later, Pharaon stands at a window of a tall office block, spying on a road-rage fight going on down at ground level, seeing as God sees, with a divine passivity.

Likewise, Dumont trains his gaze relentlessly on his ‘hero’, a sensitive individual with something of Taxi‘s Latka Gravas about him, a holy fool out of step with the world. Pharaon is the fictional grandson of a real-life Bailleul artist, but while he seems to notice everything around him, this doesn’t mean he’s any kind of artist – he listens to harpsichord music in his car, but hums tonelessly along as he picks out a tune on his Bontempi organ. He’s also prone to long spells of silence and inactivity – it’s hard not to laugh out loud when, during one typically static scene, his boss remarks “Things are heating up!” And while we never believe for a minute that Pharaon would be any kind of policeman in real life (“You’re too bloody stupid to be a cop!” shouts a character at one stage) by the end of the film he’s been on screen so long that his features are imprinted on the viewer’s mind. We know his face almost as well as our own, just as, if you’ve seen Dumont’s previous film, 1997’s La Vie de Jesus, Bailleul will seem as familiar as your own home town. Not that you’d want to pay a visit.

L’Humanite has been called the French Magnolia – both films have as their central figure a lovelorn, lonely cop, socially awkward, vaguely inept, vaguely well-meaning. But where Paul Thomas Anderson energetically splashes the screen with dazzling visual pyrotechnics, Dumont takes a mature, infinitely more careful approach, a Bressonian emphasis on the neutral presentation of non-professional performers. Anderson’s stories and characters are recognisably cinematic – but L’Humanite makes no such concessions to the audience, even as it explores the same ideas of loneliness, human contact and modern alienation..

Scene after scene is static, silent, or filled with agonising pauses – which makes it all the more striking when anything actually happens: Pharaon toiling uphill on his bike, or choking on a bit of apple; a minor industrial dispute at Domino’s factory; a fat sow suckling her litter. And it’s ironic that one of the key aspects of the murder investigation relies on the testimony of witnesses speeding past the scene at 180mph – too quick for them (an elderly English couple) to be sure of anything. Dumont, on the other hand, ensures that we get plenty of time to absorb every detail, every texture, every nuance of movement: and still we’re lost.

We’re stranded among endless ambiguities – even the identity of the killer, apparently revealed at the end, is, in retrospect, open to subjective interpretation, just as virtually all the key facts about the characters have been ‘read’ differently by various critics. Although we’ve been as close to Pharaon as the limits of cinema allow, he remains a puzzle. Is he still stunned by grief at the ‘loss’ of his family – and does this account for the film’s grinding slowness? Did the girlfriend and child die, or simply leave? What on earth is going on in the final five minutes?

The film’s most remarkable single shot encapsulates these ambiguities. Pharaon is often observed tending his allotment. At one stage we see him from behind, and he appears to be hovering about a foot off the ground. Levitation – or is he just standing on a small mound of earth? Transcendence, or mundanity? The shot ends before it’s possible for the viewer to make up their mind, but we’re undeniably disconcerted. Perhaps it was nothing, a throwaway shot. Perhaps it’s the culmination of everything Dumont wants to ‘say’ in his film.

L’Humanite is, undeniably, a daunting, frustrating experience – it’s tough going, often verging on a parody of what people who don’t go to ‘art’ movies think they must be like. And there’s a laboriousness about Dumont’s rigour, one that makes you want to grab hold of him and say “Yes, we can see what you’re doing here, but, like, you know, we get the point!” Even though much of it remains maddeningly obscure, an unmediated glimpse into its creator’s fertile mind, it is ultimately worth the time and effort. It’s unapologetically an art film: a work of art, which happens to be on film – not necessarily a great work of art, and not necessarily a ‘good film’ – but open to any subjective interpretation. No viewer can be right or wrong. Triumph or travesty? Neither. Both. Whatever.