Mainstream cinema conveniently assumes that humanity will unify in the face of otherworldly calamities like an alien invasion or zombie apocalypse. By doing so, popcorn entertainment allows audiences to defiantly believe that they would also act nobly and courageous once the sky starts falling. Because who wants to watch a version of Independence Day where Will Smith’s heroic fighter pilot philosophically second guesses himself while murderous extra-terrestrials run rough shod over America?
Possibly Bruno Dumont. The great French auteur feels no such allegiances to Hollywood’s delusional fantasies. Like Jacques Tati, he actually wants to subvert their traditional narrative constructs using brazen comedic timing and densely packed mise-en-scène. Look no further than CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans, which revels in the absurdity of our collective inertia. For 3+ hours it shows why glamorizing mankind’s response to global chaos remains an utterly ridiculous endeavor. Far more so than even the bumbling, incomprehensible actions of those working class characters from the coastal community in northern France where CoinCoin take place.
This particular rural enclave has already seen its fair share of violent buffoonery as the setting for Dumont’s 2014 masterpiece P'tit Quinquin, an entrancingly strange and expansive murder mystery produced for French television that weaves together dark comedy and police procedural in effortlessly wacky ways. Dumont’s key players in this grotesque cinematic universe are pint-sized troublemaker Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) and his ever-convulsing foil, police commandant Van der Weyeden (Bernard Pruvost).
CoinCoin takes place long after the events of P'tit Quinquin but the cultural and societal tensions have only intensified in the intervening years because of France’s partisan divide over hot-button issues like the deepening migrant crisis and LGBTQ rights. Currently, an alien invasion feels like the least of our worries. Right-wing nationalism has taken root in the community under the guise of a political party named The Bloc. Ideological anxieties explode into the open through physical and verbal outbursts, most overtly thanks to the prejudiced Van der Weyeden who’s become a manic hound dog in desperate search of a new scent.
When mysterious blue puddles of bubbling muck begin to appear around the countryside, Van der Weyeden and his partner Carpentier (Philippe Jore) take the opportunity to channel their pent up energy into a hapless, circular investigation. Immediately, the goo is deemed alien in nature, a “foreign body,” but no one seems to know how to proceed with that information. Instead, Van der Weyeden only feels emboldened to question and intimidate African migrants living in Calais, or harass the grown Quinquin who now goes by CoinCoin.
As gallons of intergalactic fluid continue to drop from space, CoinCoin refuses to explain or contextualize the scientific specifics one would typically associate with alien invasion films. Instead, the process by which human hosts produce mindless clones is essentially metamorphosis by way of slapstick, with the body inflating like a balloon before pooping out an exact replica.
One of the first souls to experience the doppelgänger effect is a drum major named Maurice Leleu (Christophe Vertheecke). Dumont initially plays with idea that both Leleu and his clone never occupy the same space, a direct homage to Tati’s ramblingly elaborate long takes of misdirection but then complicates that notion later in the film.
Dumont’s deadpan style also owes much to the physicality of Buster Keaton’s silent comedy, not to mention the splatter art of Double Dare. In a repetitive nod to Steamboat Bill, Jr., the façade of CoinCoin’s family barn refuses to stay upright, falling down while unsuspecting characters stand in the doorway narrowly avoiding physical harm. Van der Weyeden’s constantly contorting facial expressions and blustery mouth symphonies call to mind M. Hulot’s seemingly endless array of jazzy movements. And then there’s Carpentier’s penchant for driving his police car on two wheels, an egregiously unnecessary stunt but one that nevertheless feels like an act of purposeful revolt against conformity.
CoinCoin progresses sluggishly compared to P'tit Quinquin’s breakneck pace. But Dumont weaponizes repetition and emotional listlessness to hilariously mirror what it feels like to be helpless in a world slowly going to hell in a hand basket (Van der Weyeden prefers to mix his metaphors). This tone also helps inform the film’s central questions revolving around identity. Often, characters won’t admit they have a double even when sharing the same frame with their alien brethren. “It’s weird looking alike,” Van der Weyeden quips upon looking at his clone (or “clown”). Seeing is disbelieving.
Importantly, Dumont never falls prey to heedless cynicism. Despite the inept bureaucracies and communal distrust that lie at the heart of CoinCoin, he still finds muted hope in quirky acts of shared resistance. The final musical procession, for example, strikingly features all stakeholders (human and otherwise) in show of solidarity cut to Rachel Hartmann’s “Cause I Knew,” the anthem that thematically connects both P'tit Quinquin and CoinCoin. “Progress isn’t inevitable,” as Van der Weyeden points out, but neither is our demise.
CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans plays at the Locarno Festival in Los Angeles, running June 13–16, 2019.