Cracking Up: A Conversation on Bruno Dumont's "Li'l Quinquin"

Michael Pattison and Neil Young get to grips with Bruno Dumont’s first foray into television—and comedy.
Neil Young, Michael Pattison

The following exchange took place between critics Michael Pattison and Neil Young over email between 4 and 8 August, not long after Li’l Quinquin screened at Wrocław’s New Horizons International Film Festival—following its world-premiere at Cannes earlier this year, and now playing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Set in a village in northern France and originally made in four parts for transmission on French television, Bruno Dumont’s latest work is 200 minutes in length and chronicles an unorthodox murder investigation conducted by Capt Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) under the watchful eyes of a rambunctious kid known only by his nickname, Li'l Quinquin (Alane Delhaye).

SPOILER WARNING: this exchange reveals and discusses significant plot details of Li’l Quinquin

MICHAEL PATTISON: You remarked on Twitter earlier that you were still thinking about Li’l Quinquin a day after seeing it—that, having slept on it, the film was your new favorite of the year. I saw it a week before you did, and last night found myself imitating those strange facial tics Bernard Pruvost exercises as lead detective Captain Van der Weyden. I was standing there, looking into a bathroom mirror, pouting my lips, twisting my face, stretching my cheeks, cocking my head and blinking very dramatically, as if to clear my eyes of some unseen grit—or maybe a tear. So, safe to say the film’s made its mark on both of us. Is it Dumont’s best?

NEIL YOUNG: I’d need to rewatch La vie de Jésus [1997] and (especially) L’humanité [1999] again to be sure—haven’t seen either since they came out—and I somehow never got round to catching Flanders [2006]. But my gut reaction is to say yes, with the obvious caveat that Quinquin benefited massively from being such a volte-face (even though I’d been forewarned and thus forearmed by the Cannes reactions). There are moments of humor dotted through even Dumont’s ostensibly dourest efforts (I’m thinking of the hands poking out of the doors in Outside Satan [2011] proffering David Dewaele his grub) with the possible exception of Camille Claudel, 1915 [2013]. Not many guffaws in that one.

But here he unveils a full-blown, hilarious comic sensibility which somehow organically proceeds from but casts an entirely new light on everything that’s gone before. Why didn’t it emerge before? Did Dumont calculate that the best way to establish his reputation was to adhere to the post-Bressonian mode of what’s since become known as ‘slow cinema’—i.e. generally morose, downbeat treatments of serious, sad subjects? I’ve never been able to get onto Bresson’s wavelength (I’ve seen six of his features), and regard his influence as generally malign. So I was particularly overjoyed with the dodgems scene in Quinquin, as Dumont captures the wild, gleeful malice of dodgems in utter contrast to that airless, joyless dodgem sequence in Mouchette. I’d like to think that Dumont, with this one scene, has finally shucked off the sodden cloak of Bresson from his shoulders. Liberation! And I’d also like to think that Quinquin will mean that comedy is, within the grim world of international artistic cinema, taken that bit more seriously. A forlorn hope?

PATTISON: Possibly. I filed a piece for a forthcoming Slovenian publication recently positing the (by no means original) argument that comedies are, in general, neglected by our tastemakers. That comedy is always paid lip service, but when it really comes down to year-end and greatest-ever ballots, we tend to favor what you’ve referred to as “generally morose, downbeat treatments of serious, sad subjects.” As a reflection of what we value, it’s almost as if we’re afraid to enjoy ourselves—or, worse, be seen enjoying ourselves. I also wonder if the increasingly shaky professional ground on which film criticism rests is causing many to adopt an appreciation of the slow, the lengthy, the difficult, the off-putting—to justify their own chosen form of labor. There’s something self-flagellating, something vaguely religious at work: God forbid they praise something so outwardly enjoyable.

It’s easy to overstate. At any rate, I agree that Dumont’s conscious leap into all-out comedy is a welcome one. My enthusiasm had begun to wane, let’s say; I think back to the hysterically gloomy final moments of Twentynine Palms [2003] and wonder how I ever got on board with him in the first place. Maybe it’s his command of tone: he’s like someone who enters a room with appreciable menace and intent, stands in the corner and leaves without having actually done anything, but while he was there everyone was aware of his presence. The subtle communicative strategies of intimidation are attractive and distracting: tough reputations are built on sleights of hand, on the maintenance of a purposeful image. Anyway—to dig my way out of what might be a terrible metaphor—something resoundingly evasive and tonally dreadful in the likes of Twentynine Palms must have appealed to me back when I watched it in 2005. I was 16 or 17.

Quinquin seems now to be an altogether more sophisticated film. And it’s made me want to delve back into his work: it’s that rare occasion when a film prompts you to re-discover and re-evaluate its predecessors. Which isn’t to say this was a complete and unforeseeable departure. Watching it—with an appreciative capacity audience—I couldn’t shake the idea that Dumont had made it. Forewarned and forearmed, as you say. Of the many exciting things I felt during the film, the thought that excited me the most was that this had been a challenge for Dumont to make: it feels like the work of someone finally stretching himself.

Li'l Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) and Eve (Lucy Caron)

YOUNG: And it’s a stretch on several fronts simultaneously, which makes it all the more impressive. Not just the tonal shift into something close to all-out comedy, but also the fact that Dumont is operating on a larger canvas than before. He’s working with a true ensemble cast for the first time, with this astonishing duo Alane Delhaye (as Quinquin) and Bernard Pruvost (Van der Weyden) first among equals. And whereas on Camille Claudel he employed dozens of performers with learning difficulties, they were essentially background figures in what was essentially a deceptively conventional Juliette Binoche vehicle. Here, the majority of those with speaking parts would appear to fall into the ‘LD’ category, along a very wide spectrum of ‘impairment.’ This is an admirable casting ethos, but one which carries particular challenges for a director, not least the avoidance of any kind of mawkishness or hint of exploitation. There’s often a serious edge amid the chuckles and belly-laughs: I can’t remember ever feeling more protective about a fictional character than I did regarding Quinquin’s Uncle Dany—played by Jason Cirot, a performer whose learning difficulties would appear to be particularly acute.

In terms of duration, the only film of his that runs more than two hours is L’humanité at 148 minutes; this is nearly an hour longer—and I wonder if he might edit it down a bit and come up with a ‘theatrical cut’ for international release. But even so, Li’l Quinquin was created for television and that’s how it should ideally be consumed. Given the current cultural state of things in the United Kingdom right now, however, I feel very fortunate to have been able to catch it at all—on a big screen, all in one go, in Poland. There’s obviously an appetite for foreign serials, as we’ve seen with Borgen, The Killing, The Bridge and French exports like Les revenants and Spiral, not to mention the often ambitious shows coming over from the USA.But will the unclassifiable, decidedly odd Quinquin be able to slide in on their slipstream? Critical support seems assured—this is by some way the least divisive of Dumont’s output to date—and I suppose it might plausibly be sold as a kind of Twin Peaks meets This Is England (Delhaye perhaps the French equivalent of Thomas Turgoose), with touches of Southcliffe, Broadchurch, The League of Gentlemen chucked in. What’s your hunch—will it make it to British screens big and/or small?

PATTISON: Ideally, both. I don’t think it’s extravagant or catchy enough for a UK broadcaster to ‘risk’ airing across several weeks, but a four-part transmission over the course of several (perhaps consecutive) nights in the same week could work. I’m probably biased in two ways, though: I hardly ever watch television, and I’ve seen the work in one sitting, on the big screen, as a film—and, its chapter announcements notwithstanding, it felt like a film.

Having said that, if it was to air on British television, it would feel like a genuinely progressive work for the format: I referenced Twin Peaks and The League of Gentlemen in an as-yet-unpublished festival report, though while watching it I couldn’t help but think of Broadchurch, which I thought encapsulated all the worst trends of a generally bereft state of affairs for UK telly. That show pivots round a very literal murder mystery; its premise will go as far as it can or needs to before we find out who the killer is (its marketing campaign, cashing in on Twin Peaks associations, was embarrassing).

But Quinquin builds other intrigues atop its central murder mystery. In fact, where Broadchurch fails, Quinquin very much succeeds: by the end of its third episode I’d not so much lost interest in the central whodunit as become captivated by finer, more peripheral details. In terms of other intrigues, I’m thinking of the early funeral sequence in particular, which seems to exemplify the film’s wide range of comic layers: the broad gag of casually placing a guy in a ski mask in the background of the scene; the deliberately misplaced song performed by Quinquin’s girlfriend Eve’s sister; that seemingly unscripted would-be blooper-reel moment, with the priest and altar boy cracking up into uncontrollable, out-of-character laughter.

Coming back to your observation about characters with learning difficulties, for me this seemed to push at wider themes of communication and (in)tolerance. The serial killer strikes again—and so the narrative is prolonged—due to (1) a lack of communication between the investigating authorities and silent/mute/incapacitated witnesses, and (2) a general, idle indifference for the victims. One episode is called “The Devil Incarnate.” Is this an allegory about fascism? About the importance of bearing witness as a preventative rather than a rehabilitative measure? About communicating against evil to stop its rot, rather than doing so with the facile benefits of hindsight?

With this in mind, I loved its investment in side characters such as Uncle Dany, or the black lads Quinquin’s gang forms an exaggerated rivalry with. And I think the challenging thing, for Dumont and for us, was having two protagonists (Quinquin and Van der Weyden) whose relationship to these ‘Others’—the disabled, the aged, people of color—changes. Both characters are essentially ‘good eggs’ who aren’t immune to kneejerk prejudices. I’m thinking of that tender moment when Quinquin leads the applause for Eve’s sister during an open-air talent audition, the way a young lad who wants to show support for his love might, which is followed by a chase in pursuit of the two black boys he thinks he ought to be chasing.

In both instances, Quinquin seems to be acting out roles (romantic one minute, tough-guy the next) that he thinks he should be fulfilling. It strikes me that Quinquin hasn’t got a real guiding figure in his life: his dad’s largely absent, his mother isn’t seen until the last episode, his grandparents are too removed from him in age, Uncle Dany requires attention and care a lad Quinquin’s age cannot be expected to give. Which is why that plot development, by which previous antagonists Quinquin and Van der Weyden join forces, is genuinely exciting: you get the sense both could bring the best out of each other. That scene when Van der Weyden—perhaps prompted by his newfound proximity to Quinquin, to youth—asks the boy’s dad if he may ride one of his horses, is as hilarious as it is touching.

YOUNG: Indeed.

PATTISON: Is that your official response?!

YOUNG: My little jest. I was facetiously riffing on your idea that one of the subtexts is the “lack of communication” between institutions and individuals, which is definitely there in Dumont’s script (and by the way the really surprising thing for me was seeing in the credits that Dumont was the sole writer; I’d presumed at least some kind of collaborator was involved).

Regarding the fascism angle and “The Devil Incarnate,” I’d be cautious of dropping that particular F-bomb in such a context (the script’s references to radical Islam are unambiguously tongue-in-cheek). But I certainly don’t think it’s a coincidence that Li’l Quinquin was shot in Audresselles, on Cap Gris Nez in the Pas de Calais region, not far from Ambleteuse where much of Outside Satan was filmed.

The next village of any size up the coast from Audresselles is Wissant, the next one after that is Sangatte—location of the ‘notorious’ refugee camps very recently (and somewhat brutally) cleared by the CRS riot cops in the immediate wake of the Front National’s success in the European elections. The Front National got one of their highest percentages of the vote in the Pas de Calais region—they did only slightly less well in the adjoining Nord region, where Dumont was born in Bailleul (setting for La vie de Jésus and L'humanité).

The blithe racism of Li’l Quinquin and his pals has proven a bit of a stumbling-block for certain viewers, who are evidently so keen to like/embrace the protagonists of whatever it is they’re watching. Dumont doesn’t excuse or soft-pedal Quinquin’s racist streak, but—once again invoking Thomas Turgoose from This Is England—I don’t get the sense that it’s particularly ingrained or is setting him up for an adulthood as some kind of FN hot-head. But who knows what Dumont has got in store! He could certainly do one heck of a lot worse than have Quinquin become his Antoine Doinel, returning to the character and his locale every four or five years or so. A more commercial prospect: the bumbling further adventures of Van der Weyden, who through some bureaucratic mix-up is transferred to Paris and ends up inadvertently exposing the misdeeds of a foxily dodgy ex-president named Carsozy or somesuch.

Capital-P politics are notably absent from Li’l Quinquin, of course—there’s not even any particular sense of political structures in place at a village, regional or national level, which makes it all the more amusing that Van der Weyden should be in effect the sole representative of ‘authority.’ As you imply in your aside about the giggling priest (Stéphane Gallais yet another 24-carat find from Dumont’s casting genius), the Catholic church ain’t exactly a vital or helpful force in these people’s lives. Maybe after La vie de Jésus, Hadewijch [2009], Satan, etc. Dumont—who if I remember rightly is a fairly devout atheist—has moved on from his ‘god phase’ altogether.

Carpentier (Philippe Jore) and Capt Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) 

PATTISON: Is the radical Islam unambiguously tongue-in-cheek? It kind of comes from nowhere, true, and is adopted by a confused kid rightly angry at the world and the hostility he’s subjected to because of his race. When he reaches breaking point, he begins to say “Allahu Akbar” repeatedly, as if acting out a role others already expect of him, electively taking up a caricature that can never end well (paralleled by Quinquin’s aspiration to manliness). It’s one of the few instances in the film I think where the humor is deliberately laced with an increasingly awkward sense of dread; it’s telling that the final episode is called “Allahu Akbar,” a kind of non-sequitur that nevertheless hints at tragedy ahead. As it turns out, the tragedy comes sooner than expected: after firing aimlessly at the cops (who always seem to be late to the party), the kid shoots himself in the head. Van der Weyden, previously ambivalent about race, youth, disability and so on, abandons all previous semblances of prejudice and rushes to the boy’s aid, in vain.

My point, though, isn’t that the film is warning against radical Islam, or against a general radicalism in itself, but against the social structures (or lack thereof) by which people are marginalized to begin with—a marginalization that leads them to take up irrational solutions to institutionalized problems. If Dumont is shifting away from what to me is often an obscure spirituality, he very profitably seems to be probing something much more important: the social character of fundamentalism. It seems to be a rare instance where the ‘why can’t they all just get along’ cliché seems to work—precisely because these characters show moments of connection. Does that make sense?

YOUNG: Indeed. Mohammed’s spiral into fanaticism and self-destruction fits into that wider concept of characters acting according to received social norms; which is why it’s so hilarious and shocking when the priest and his assistant are so very un-clerical at the funeral service in the first episode. And nobody calls them out on it! If that was my mother getting stuck in the ground, I think I’d call a halt to the shenanigans with the wobbly microphone sooner rather than later.

Regarding “Allahu Akbar”—i.e. “God is great”—I tend to think this is (yet) another straightforward example of Dumont taking a cockeyed and deeply caustic view of organized religion and its deleterious effects on individuals and communities. Li’l Quinquin is essentially and assertively humanist: the only reliable and dependable bonds are those we forge through love, whether among family-members, friends, or in the romantic sense. The film begins and ends with Quinquin and Eve, the duo’s connection, established in the first seconds of episode one, proving deeper than mere ‘puppy love’ and allowing Quinquin, in the final shot, to have taken what I interpret as a decisive step towards adulthood (we’re in the territory of that dreaded phrase ‘coming of ager’).

It’s as though he’s now able to see his environment, appreciate it—indicated by the POV shot of the seemingly ordinary farming landscape which is the piece’s penultimate image, and which takes on a transcendent quality at least as powerful as anything in L'humanité. That film included the famous ‘levitation’ scene, which I remember being uncertain about when I first saw it—was he really floating mid-air or was it some kind of optical illusion? I sought it out on YouTube, came up blank, found this, which gave me chills, and which includes Ch’tiderman (rather prosaically translated via the subtitles as ‘Hickman’), whose gravity-defiance is unambiguous, startlingly sudden and utterly delightful, though of course his later behavior towards Dany pushes him from superhero to villain. Ch’tiderman pops up out of nowhere, does what he does, buggers off: the universe is capricious and cruel. But it can be tamed with an embrace.

PATTISON: That trailer you linked to reminded me of other delightful touches too: Carpentier’s magnificent two-wheeler! In fact, Carpentier (Philippe Jore), Van der Weyden’s assistant, grows in confidence as the piece goes on. What do you make of that culminating confrontation with Dany, when the latter appears at one point to be holding Carpentier by the arm, as if he’s his hostage? The ominous tone—and the accusations that come with it—seems to dissipate immediately. It seems instead to be something much gentler, as if Carpentier is extending his arm as a crutch. (By the way, the levitation scene is here.)

YOUNG: The ambiguity of that gesture—restraint or support?—encapsulates one of the things that makes Li’l Quinquin special. It’s to do with the casting choices and the relative freedom Dumont gives his performers, in many of the scenes, with regard to physical movement. There’s a distinct ‘wild card’ aspect here: from the oscillating severity of Van der Weyden’s tics (or rather Pruvost’s tics) to Dany’s eerie disconnect (or rather Cirot’s eerie disconnect). The unpredictability is there even when there’s just one character on screen; when they meet, the possibilities expand exponentially. I’d love to see a documentary on how the film was made; to see how many takes Dumont went through, and to see how much direction he actually gave his actors. I sense he sought a creative chaos within minimal limits, resulting in a work that fully justifies that oft-abused term ‘experimental.’

I’m also rabidly curious about the casting process: as previously with Dumont—whether it’s David Douche in La vie de Jésus, Emmanuel Schotte inL'humanité or David Dewaele in Hadewijch and Outside Satan—Quinquin beggars the question: ‘Where did he find these people?’ Bernard Pruvost has to be in his fifties at least, but there’s nothing about him online apart from the occasional mention that he’s in this serial. Philippe Jore (Carpentier) likewise, though his distinctive features are so naggingly familiar (I think he may have posed for Bosch or Brueghel in a previous life). It’s rare for Dumont’s stars to ‘cross over’ into ‘normal’ cinema—seven years after La vie de Jésus’ Cannes premiere, David Douche was homeless in Lille; David Dewaele’s only feature films were his three for Dumont, and he was dead at 36. But surely French cinema won’t be dumb enough to let Pruvost, Jore and Alane Delhaye (Quinquin himself) slip through its fingers. And I’m very serious when I say that Dumont should cast Jason Cirot as the lead in his next movie, whatever that may be…

PATTISON: Is Dany the killer? The obvious answer is no, he isn’t—but it seems that at first we’re meant to believe he’s a suspect. Or Dumont at least leaves it to us—before, perhaps, throwing an accusatory finger: shame on anyone who might even think Dany’s somehow faking his disability (did you, like me, expect at any point that there might be some kind of Keyser Sozer reveal?). Dany’s (or, indeed, Cirot’s) desperately wide-eyed, anxiously poker-faced response to the policemen’s relatively tame interrogation hints at some sort of resistance. There’s also that suggestive moment when he’s seen wandering around one of the murder scenes—though the handheld shot of him implies he’s a potential victim of the actual killer. I agree with your feelings of protectiveness toward Dany; his suspicion of authority figures and lawmakers is warranted.

In fact, the whole thing falls on the right side of open-ended. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote at the time of Breaking Bad’sfinale that that show’s closing episode flipped things and put the question to its audience, asking them what kind of man they wanted and/or needed Walter White to be while making each response possible and plausible. Li’l Quinquin’s central murder mystery, revolving around an outlandishly heinous, amusingly grotesque crime scene, seems to pose such questions from the very beginning. Coming back to what you said earlier about viewers being so keen to embrace the protagonists of whatever they’re watching: in the first scene, Quinquin nods to Eve in a frontal medium-shot—i.e., he nods to us the audience. His boyishly white hair, his rugged posture, his distinctive cleft lip and this romantic gesture: everything, all at once—charming, vulnerable, mischievous, not above disagreeable thoughts or acts. What kind of hero do we need Quinquin to be?

YOUNG: A deaf one! Dumont shows us several times that Quinquin wears a hearing-aid, but unless I was in a period of inattention I can’t recall this ever being remarked upon by anyone, never figuring in the narrative at all. Two of the critical wows of Cannes this year therefore feature principal characters with some form of hearing-impairment: the other being Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe from Ukraine, which doesn't have the belly-laughs of Quinquin but is definitely streaked with (and to some degree leavened by) very dark humor. The kids in The Tribe get away with what they get away with—and they get away with a lot!—partly because they take advantage of the condescending sympathy with which they're viewed by society. And Quinquin takes full advantage of the latitude granted to young tearaways: where would cinema be without ‘scamp’ protagonists down the decades?! Having just last night sat through Boyhood and its passive lead, I look back on Quinquin's mild delinquency with enhanced appreciation and indulgence. Never mind Bart Simpson; he's a welcome throwback to the days of the Bowery Boys, the Little Tough Guys and the Dead End Kids... a Leo Gorcey for the 21st century!

PATTISON: A rich line of cinematic precedents—going all the way back, perhaps, to Chaplin’s The Kid, whose eponymous child finds his impish curiosity mirrored by a much older, mustachioed clown who walks funny; Quinquin and Van der Weyden also make unlikely but intermittently effective partners. If I recall, Quinquin doesn’t have any exchange of note—if he has one at all—with Carpentier, which suggests to me that Van der Weyden is a one-partner sort of detective: there’s no room for two. In fact there’s barely room for one: he talks over or dismisses Carpentier’s breakthroughs and only accepts Quinquin’s help after much initial reluctance.

Coming back to what you briefly noted earlier as the work’s humanism—that the various bonds we make might be the biggest strength we have—I noticed that even as the film enters increasingly ominous territory in its latter stages, a sort of harmony begins to conquer any previous animosity. You might say the murders have brought a certain quietude to the village (a grim interpretation!), but I’m talking more about those scenes of contentment on Van der Weyden’s part: the way he allows himself to open up, to be at peace with others and with life’s many conundrums. (Maybe my heartiest laugh throughout: the perfectly-timed revelation that he’s nicknamed by other officers ‘The Fog’!) That scene when Carpentier drives Van der Weyden to his next stop, with Quinquin and Eve sitting in the back, holding hands; Van der Weyden notices the gesture in the rearview mirror and looks appreciably heartened. It’s Eve that brings these men together. In fact, when Eve is present in any scene, one gets the feeling that not much can go wrong. She lends a calming effect; it’s only when he rushes away from her that Quinquin gets into trouble, such as when he and his pals chase after Mohammed at Eve’s sister’s talent performance. Eve: perhaps one last holy connotation on Dumont’s part? The question is, what next?

YOUNG: My dream would be for Dumont and Jean-Charles Hue to collaborate on a project bringing together the Quinquin bunch and the Yeniche families from The Lord’s Ride and Eat Your Bones—imagine the possibilities. That won't happen, of course—Dumont seems very much a loup solitaire, one who as he nears his sixties is evidently keen to sniff out new terrain. I have to confess that after Camille Claudel, 1915 I was on the verge of starting to write him off in terms of being a genuinely exciting creative force in French, European and world cinema. But in the light of Li’l Quinquin, I prepared to be dazzled.

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