There were no prizes in years at Cannes which so offended the gathered critics as the three - the Grand Jury Prize, Best Actor, Best Actress - which the David Cronenberg-led 1999 jury bestowed on French filmmaker Bruno Dumont's Humanite. How, these critics argued, could the jury ignore Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother and favor Dumont's perverse, off-putting tale of sweaty sex and child murder?
And how could real thespians of legitimate talent (say, All About My Mother's Cecilia Roth, Felicia's Journey's Bob Hoskins) be insultingly overlooked for Dumont's raw, totally amateur leads, Emmanuel Schotte and Severine Caneele? Neither before had seen a movie camera. Wasn't Dumont simply typecasting his low-life, loser protagonists, a dubious-intellect country cop and a crude, big-bodied female assembly line worker?
When the bug-eyed Schotte accepted his Best Actor award, and seemed as dazed and dopey and inarticulate as the character he played, the critics went crazy. What an outrage!
Not at all, not at all. To my mind, Humanite is a passionate and important work from the French filmmaker of The Life of Jesus, and Schotte and Caneele were inspired castings. Maybe Schotte is an odd bird, but who not used to the spotlight wouldn't be thrown off by the craven crowds and red carpet of Cannes? When the awards were announced, I for one felt vindicated, and pleased that Cronenberg's jury had the courage to be so unpopular.
Humanite, shot in Bailleul, a working-class town in Northern France, is on its prime level a classic policier. At the beginning of the film, a barbarous rape-murder occurs, of an 11-year-old girl who has just left a school bus. The local police are called in to investigate, though this crime is much bigger and more horrific than they are used to.
A portly Commandant (Ghislain Ghesquiere) is in charge, but much of the footwork is left to the unlikely person of the snail-paced, heavy-breathing detective, Pharon (Schotte). Pharon gets on the case but in the oddest, most indirect way: smelling the earth, sniffing the hair of suspects, riding his bike in the country, interviewing witnesses in an opaque manner. As with all idiosyncratic sleuths since Sherlock Holmes, we are left to ponder if there's hidden method to Pharon's way, especially his maddening slowness: Humanite is a 2 1/2 hour film. Is he on to something, or, also possible, is he just very, very stupid? A stooge from The Andy Griffith Show? Forrest Gump, Detective.
sWhile the investigation bumps about, there is a second story: of Pharon's infatuation with the scraggy-haired, factory girl, Domino (Caneele), who lives down the street. She is involved with, and in love with, Joseph (Philippe Tullier), a short-fused, unsentimental bus driver. Three occasions in Humanite we are privy to Domino and Joseph having sex, and it is brute, squeeky, and animal-like each time. There's more. Bruno Dumont holds on a closeup of Domino's vagina, there to remind of Humanite's most disturbing shot: of the bloodied vagina of the dead girl.
Most of Humanite stays with the three characters, who also hang about together in a kind of Nicholas Ray-like marginalized ersatz family: think Jim-Judy-Plato of Rebel Without a Cause. But the settings are another splendidly breathing character: the austere de Chirico downtown street, hit by a melancholy sunlight, and the rich, damp Flanders countryside. Recall the tension when Cary Grant got off that bus away from the city in North by Northwest, that disquieting sensation that something horrible would happen, just before he's attacked par avion and chased into a cornfield. That's what Humanite feels like, a 148-minute cusp-of-nightmare.
At the end of Humanite, the murderer reveals himself. It's a great, satisfying, shimmering payoff: the killer is a shock, but also, as it should be, you've known who all along.
At a Cannes press conference, Bruno Dumont explained his non-professional casting: "I find it difficult with actors to find those who are close to my characters. I want people who embody the characters in a way close to their natural being. For Pharon, I went to Bailleul, the city where I made the film. I met people from the city hall, and from the local employment house. Then someone told me there is a former soldier who could be interested. That idea interested me, so I put (Emmanuel Schotte) against a wall. I had him act some scenes, I saw his eyes, how very easily he became the character.
"So I eliminated the fiction character, and he replaced the fiction character. It was him. That's the way he walks, folds his arms. What attracted me is his way of talking. He says simple things. He says 'hello' in a peculiar way. He takes us outside of ourselves, to the margins of reality."
What about Humanite's deliberate pace? "You shouldn't be afraid of long sequences. When you make a film, you spend a lot of time thinking about time. Don't spare the spectators. They also can wait." And the murder? "I filmed it in all its crudeness. Cinema should film the inhuman, but the meaning of a film should be able to appease the horror."