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Desperate measures

Human frailty at the heart of Humanite

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At the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, jury president David Cronenberg's announcement that Humanité had won the Grand Jury Prize was greeted with applause and boos. And the French film has caused a minor sensation in American critical circles as well. Humanité's initial shock value originates in one of the film's first scenes: a close-up, with shades of Marcel Duchamp's Étant Donnés, of a child's body splayed out in a field, it's raw, red vagina the grotesque focal point. The 11-year-old child's rape-murder becomes a catalyst for this methodical, tranquilized narrative as the plodding, slow-witted policeman Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotté) helps investigate the girl's death. More likely to alienate audiences than that initial jolting shot is Humanité's often agonizingly slow pace drawn out to 148 minutes, which strives for the impression of daily, lived reality. Director Bruno Dumont captures the glum environs of Humanité's setting in the working-class village of Bailleul, where adjoining brick row houses recall the dismal, characterless boxes of the British labor class. Dumont (The Life of Jesus) tells his story in the slightest increments — most of which seem unrelated to the murder investigation but which paint a vivid picture of the mundane contours of Pharaon and his neighbors' lives.

Pharaon bicycles across the countryside, a dribble of saliva falling from his mouth, he tends a garden in the town's outskirts, gazes off into the distance, and travels to the seaside with his neighbor Domino (Séverine Caneele) and her crude, cocky boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier). A large portion of Humanité's "action" features its characters gazing out of windows, and Dumont uses this constant wistful posture to convey some of the ordinary ennui of these people, as well as the unaddressed longings and questions that give Dumont his larger, philosophical theme.

The film establishes a lethargic pace as Pharaon attends incompetently, and often maddeningly slowly, to the minute business of his life: his shirtless breakfasts in his mother's kitchen and his idle conversations on the sidewalk outside their homes with his unrequited love object Domino, a factory worker with a thick body and terminally sullen expression. With his almost dogged pursuit of ordinary activities and his continual silence, Pharaon often appears sinister and obsessive, though surrounding characters seem to find that same reticence a sign of sensitivity. Along with Humanité's prolonged running time, this ambiguity in regards to characters shows Dumont's refusal to offer audiences easy, comfortable answers.

Humanité often suggests the way banality can have a brutal, despairing edge, as in a film like the American cult slasher Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Maybe it's the attendant hype of Humanité's reputation, but even the most ordinary events, such as Joseph, Domino and Pharaon's trip to the seaside, have a dark tincture, a foreboding sense of desolation about to give way to brutality. Much of the film's ambiance of despair comes from the small but telling cruelties of village life and its downtrodden citizens. Dumont captures the peculiar doldrums of contemporary lower middle-class French life — the factory work, the grim family farms, the boredom — much as the recent I Stand Alone and the interminably ponderous Rosetta (which garnered the Palme d'Or the same year as Humanité) contribute to recent French film's interest in a forgotten working class.

There are some mystifying, inexplicable moments in Humanité which can give it an art house pretentiousness and artificiality that rubs against the general hyper-realism of the plodding errands and activities carried out in real-time. On several occasions, like some benevolent Christ figure, Pharaon takes advantage of his time alone with a criminal to embrace them, as if suddenly overwhelmed by the tragedy of humankind. Such gestures feel nonsensical, awkward, as if these moments of human frailty somehow trigger in Pharaon some recollection of his own traumas — the loss of a girlfriend and a baby Domino alludes to at several points in the film.

Dumont manages to capture some of humanity's fragility, as in the affection traded between Domino and Pharaon. But the director also roots around in the jagged brutality of intimacy: Domino's crude gesture of grabbing her crotch at a flirtatious male co-worker and the petty combativeness between Pharaon and his mother as she cooks his meals. Dumont exposes the crippled reality of human behavior, as in scenes of Domino and Joseph engaged in animalistic, wordless sex, their clammy bodies engaged in what — from the outside looking in — carries a whiff of dehumanization. Shots of Pharaon's mother's hand preparing dinner and his boss's thick, crimson neck stuffed into his collar suggest a fixation on flesh, which gives the film some of its poetry: flesh as a show of our weakness, our mortality — a premonition of our decomposition like the seminal death of a child that opens Humanité.