It’s not Broadchurch and it’s certainly not Gracepoint, thank heavens. Murder will plague a provincial northern seaside village and deep secrets will be revealed, but everyone largely takes it in stride. This is especially true of the young troublemaking protagonist of Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin (trailer here), a four part French miniseries that screens in its entirety as a special presentation at the 52nd NewYork Film Festival.
The small but forceful Li’l Quinquin is more Napoleon than Huck Finn, but he is sweet and gentle with his girl friend Eve. She certainly appreciates the attention, because most of the town is focused on her teenaged sister’s audition concert for a French reality show. At least that was the big story around town, until a dead cow was improbably found in a remote WWII bunker. It happened to be a mad cow, with people parts inside it. That person was Madame LeBleu, the wife of a well to do farmer, who was having an affair with Bhiri, a kosher butcher for the local Muslim immigrant community. He too soon turns up dead, under similar circumstances, but he will not be the last to meet a premature end.
Captain Van Der Weyden will investigate the crime as best he can, but it is hard to imagine a flatfoot who inspires less confidence. A twitchy, socially dysfunctional bumbler prone to Tourrete-like squawking, Van Der Weyden is out of his depth, but he never passes up a chance for an annoying Colombo-like confrontation. Naturally, Li’l Quinquin rubs him the wrong way—and the feeling is mutual.
Anyone who has seen Dumont’s last four or five films would not have thought comedy was part of the severe auteur’s skill set, but he uncorks a genuine surprise with Li’l Quinquin. Of course, by comedy, we mean humor that is very dark and very dry (isn’t that the best kind?), punctuated by moments of almost slapstick absurdity. Yet, it still bears hallmarks of Dumont’s signature style, such as the lonely windswept vistas, the striking long takes, and the unsettling feeling that evil exists and its proximity is uncomfortably close.
As the title character, Alane Delhaye is hilarious, scary as heck, and more than half credible as a leading man. He is unusually expressive—you might even say his expressions are bizarre, but he commands the screen. Frankly, the film/mini-series would have been a train-wreck without him. However, Bernard Pruvost is almost just as weirdly effective as Van Der Weyden, a veritable bundle of tics and inappropriate comments, whose face appears to be about ninety percent eyebrows.
Despite its length (a mere two hundred minutes), Li’l Quinquin is Dumont’s most accessible work, by a country mile. The vibe roughly feels like he remade Hors Satan (his best recent prior film) with the Little Rascals. While some heavy-handed statement making regarding the town’s racist attitudes towards their unassimilated immigrant population adds a bit of unnecessary clunkiness, Dumont’s idiosyncratic humor still makes the considerable running pass quite swiftly. Highly recommended for fans of slightly surreal mysteries in the Twin Peaks tradition, Li’l Quinquin screens tomorrow (10/2) at the Beale, as part of this year’s NYFF.