Conversations about film
March 6, 2021
Directed by Bruno Dumont, 1999
Jim Wilson: Michael, welcome back to my little film forum. I think the last time you joined me was for Summer Hours, back in November. That was a fun talk, but way too long ago. I’ve missed you. How’s life?
Michael Clawson: Hey Jim, I’m glad to be back! It has been too long. Life is busy, but good. The start of a new year is always a more hectic time for me at work, and on top of that, I just moved into a new place, so there’s been a lot going on for the last couple months. What’s new with you?
Jim: New? Very little. People keep building and remodeling houses, so I’m busy, but that’s nothing new.
Contrary to Collokino standards, I’m bringing the film this time. I guess the last one, with Jeff, was my pick, too, but that feels like a special edition, like all my talks with Jeff do.
I’ve wanted to talk about Bruno Dumont’s classic L’humanité for a long time now, and you were courageous enough to humor me. Dumont is a huge favorite of mine. His films always make me feel electrified, even injected, by the visual manifestation of a thought, or a string of thoughts that combine to form an idea, what is a profoundly subjective perspective that isn’t the perspective of any one character, but of the film’s author, who is, in all Dumont films, Bruno Dumont. Had you seen any of his films before this one?
Michael: No, L’humanité is now the only film of Dumont’s that I’ve seen, but I’ve been intrigued by him as a filmmaker for some time, mainly because I get the sense that his work tends to be polarizing. Among a good handful of critics whose opinions and writing I tend to appreciate, I’ve seen euphoric reactions to Dumont movies along with some viscerally negative takes. So I was excited when you selected L’humanité for this Collokino. We haven’t talked about any movie that from my vantage point is as divisive as L’humanité, so this is a cool change of pace.
I recall you saying that along with Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman, you consider Bruno Dumont one of your favorite filmmakers. What role did L’humanité play in catapulting Dumont into your personal canon? Was it your entry point into this filmography, or were you already familiar with him?
Jim: That’s true. Denis, Akerman and Dumont are my top three directors. I honestly can’t remember which was the first Dumont film I watched, since I watched them all in pretty short order, I was so awed by him, but it was certainly one of the first. Camille Claudel, 1915 and Twentynine Palms, along with L’humanité, cemented Dumont as one of those few directors, like Denis and Akerman, whose work I instinctively understand. I think L’humanité gets at a fundamental, albeit uncomfortable, truth about humanity, one that was central to the development of Existentialism in European thought from the middle of the 19th century, but is also very central to Christian thinking, though Dumont strips it mostly of religious references. And since those ideas, sans the Christian applications, have been crucial to my own thinking since I was a teenager, including my passion for French writers and philosophers, L’humanité assumed a secure position in my pantheon of great films from the first time I saw it.
I know that many despise Dumont, and it’s no mystery why, but I think that to those folks he doesn’t make sense, and just comes off as needlessly weird, opaque and shocking, but to me it all makes perfect, and profound, sense. Dumont makes films that come from a very raw and honest place. Like I said before, he doesn’t tell stories so much as he visualizes thoughts and ideas in oftentimes very extreme ways. His is an intensely interior style that isn’t particularly interested in constructing standard narratives.
L’humanité follows a police inspector, Pharaon De Winter, played by the wonderfully enigmatic Emmanuel Schotté , in a small town in northern France, as he investigates the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl, though it’s less about that than Pharaon’s day-to-day life and the life of those few who are closest to him. I’m sure that’s a source of frustration with lots of viewers, who want more of a typical police procedural, and that’s a part of Dumont’s subversive nature. In a crime story, of which many of his films are, he sees less a mystery about who did what to whom, and more a discovery of subtle psychological and philosophical elements in human nature, which are quietly revealed, almost coincidentally, in the unfolding of the investigation.
What did you make of it? Tell me your general impressions.
Michael: Yeah, you can’t really describe the film without calling it a police procedural, but to leave it at that would be highly misleading. It’s a very idiosyncratic film, one that I’ve been characterizing in my head sensibility-wise as like a cross between the working-class realism of a Dardenne brothers movie and the awkward, discomfiting surrealism of Yorgos Lanthimos.
I watched the movie twice, and had two very different reactions to it. After the first viewing, I wasn’t far away in my thinking from the folks who you say find Dumont to be “needlessly weird.” In other words, I found some of the film’s peculiarities grating, and I struggled to make heads or tails of De Winter, both the character as written by Dumont and the performance given by Schotté. All I really saw in him were affectations, the unpleasantness of which was too great for me to empathize with the character’s crisis or for me to care deeply about what Dumont was getting at. I wavered between thinking that Dumont was oblivious to how obnoxiously pitiful De Winter was and thinking that Dumont was going too far out of his way to make the guy a vacant weirdo. The shockingly graphic moments didn’t bother me. I just could not vibe with Dumont’s methods of characterization.
Fortunately, I responded far better on my second viewing. Knowing what I was in for helped me move past what I initially found so off-putting, and view everything through a more conceptual lens. I was surprised to find that I connected with De Winter more meaningfully, especially in the film’s uniquely tender moments. It happened fast too: the second that De Winter faceplants in the mud while running across a field in the opening few minutes, I saw a guy in such shock, so horrified by what he’s just witnessed that he isn’t present enough to even feel his own body falling to ground. I was also much more attuned to and fascinated by the film’s elemental aspects – soil and wind are recurrent motifs – and how Dumont’s interest in human nature intermingles with his attention to the natural world. I also noticed important details that flew right over my head the first time around.
Jim: Lanthimos yes. The Dardennes not quite. Social realism is never much Dumont’s concern.
I’m fascinated by your description of Pharaon’s actions as “affectations”. Affectations are falsehoods, and as such require a standard of genuine to define themselves in contrast to. In the world of this film, what is genuine? Truth is, you know, Dumont found Schotté the way he finds many of his actors, from general auditions he holds among the locals where the film is made. Professional no, but genuine. Schotté’s an eccentric, and Pharaon is Schotté . He may be a concentrated version of himself, but he’s not faking. Dumont has a way of taking anybody and turning them up to eleven, or down to three.
I think if there’s anything Schotté is explicit about, it’s Pharaon’s empathy, for everyone. Let’s be blunt about it. Pharaon is a Christ figure. That he’s an awkward, geeky, maybe stupid man, green-lights him for the role of a martyred messiah in the Christian fashion. Dumont invites you to question that.
I love that you picked up on the elemental themes. Earth is critical, or man’s limited command of it. Images of tilling, sowing, cultivating, and reaping are constant. Tell me about the wind images.
Michael: I did hear about Dumont’s casting process between my two viewings. It’s in an interview on the Criterion disc – I’m guessing you’ve seen it – that he describes the alchemical process of Schotté the actor merging with Pharaon the character. He didn’t want to alter too much of Schotté’s natural behavior – his slow movement, his heavy breathing – but also didn’t want Schotté simply playing himself. It sounds like Dumont is extremely delicate in his direction of actors, taking care to ensure the actor’s natural essence isn’t rubbed out as they bring the character to life.
Listening to Dumont talk about his process and Schotté is part of why I really came around on Pharaon. To your question about affectation, I think it is fair to say that there’s something at least a little eccentric about almost everyone in the movie, so there isn’t any obvious figure that Pharaon’s odd demeanor stands in contrast to. There is something about how realistic Dumont’s world-building is, however, that heightens everything that’s peculiar. That’s why I mention the Dardennes in tandem with Lanthimos, but I won’t hammer on that connection too hard. The working-class milieu and setting is very believable, unlike Lanthimos’ worlds, which are often more clearly fabricated (e.g. The Lobster). It took me some time to adjust to how Dumont is balancing what I would call realism, with genre and elements of the strange and fantastic. Now that I’ve gotten my head around it a little better, I find it pretty great!
Back to the wind and the elements. There are some wonderfully ambiguous moments as Pharaon goes about his investigation and daily life, where first, we see Pharaon looking through a window or out on to an open field, then we get a shot of the landscape and hear the wind passing through it, and then another shot of Pharaon, with what then looks like a subtly contemplative expression on his face. I think these might be moments of recognition for Pharaon. I think he’s analogizing, perhaps unconsciously, the natural world and human nature. The wind is no more escapable than humanity’s worst tendencies.
What do you make of Dumont’s elemental focus? Also, care to introduce Domino and Joseph, and give me your thoughts on Schotté’s relationship with them?
Jim: Sorry, yes, I’m shirking my narrative duties here. Domino, brought to life by Séverine Caneele, is Pharaon’s neighbor, a woman Pharaon is obviously enamored of. It should be pointed out, before going any further, that we learn from others that Pharaon had a girlfriend or wife, and a young child, who both died two years prior. Pharaon never speaks of it, and we know no details about what happened, the implication being that there’s a big grief-filled hole in Pharaon’s life, and Domino’s place in it is complicated by that emotional turmoil. Domino is a strong-willed, impish character, who wields her sex-appeal recklessly, though it’s uncertain how much this confuses or hurts Pharaon. But Domino has a boyfriend, the handsome bus driver Joseph (Philippe Tullier), who is, in every way, Pharaon’s polar opposite. Swaggering, obnoxious and cruel, Joseph not only tolerates Domino’s attachment to Pharaon, but seems to enjoy Pharaon’s third-wheeling presence, if only as a beta-male backdrop to enhance his own virulent virility. Together, the three go out for meals, and take day trips to the beach. It’s an odd friendship, often strained and awkward, for which it’s impossible not to pity Pharaon’s puppyish acquiescence.
I think this is a good place to point out that L’humanité is a film about glances, people looking, observing and inspecting, which speaks directly to the emphasis in Existentialism on the observation from others of the self, the reflexive, subjectively objectifying gaze. Since relationships, in this context, are defined only by individual experience, they are always binary, at least. What the relationship between Pharaon, Domino and Joseph is can’t be measured by a single perspective, but functions more like an eddying current, or wind, if you will. There are any number of great examples of this, especially the scene in which Pharoan watches from an open doorway as Domino and Joseph have sex on the floor. Domino sees him, but doesn’t react. It’s fun to imagine what’s going through their thoughts at that moment. Even Joseph, who sees neither of their gazes, is altered by this objectification. It’s a dynamic you will see constantly in Dumont’s films, the toggling back and forth between subject and object, which aligns him closely with the observational methods of Chantal Akerman, another fervent existential humanist.
Which leads to the distant looks you brought up. Although other characters do it as well, we see Pharaon often staring off into the distance. We see his far-away look, followed by what he’s looking at, which is usually a distant hill. It’s a fascinating device Dumont uses to indicate interiority by pointing the camera in the direction of Pharaon’s stare at a distant externality. When we’re lost in thought, what do we usually do? We stare, often at some distant spot. We fix ourselves in our most inner place by casting our gaze into the distance. Understandably, one might wonder what it is that Pharaon is so insistently gazing at, though the intent is to signal what can’t be seen with a camera, what we can only imagine is going on inside Pharaon’s thoughts.
I’m not avoiding your question about elemental forces, but I think it might serve the conversation best at this point to turn to some of the concrete events of the story, which speak more directly to the film’s central themes around civility, and the sliding scale between good and evil. There’s an early scene in which Pharaon, Domino and Joseph go out to dinner together. From the drive in Joseph’s car to the restaurant to the drive back home, it’s one of the film’s most memorable sequences. What do you see going on there?
Michael: Their drive to the restaurant, with Joseph behind the wheel, Pharaon in the front passenger seat, and Domino in back, ties in with a motif we haven’t mentioned yet: the rural factory town that the story is set in is a conspicuously quiet and empty one, but cars tend to fly down the city streets, especially the road that our three main characters live and hang out on (I found myself wondering if Pharaon’s wife and daughter died in a car accident). In this particular scene, Joseph is recklessly speeding, and slams on the brakes only just before coming to a stop sign, which upsets Pharaon. At the restaurant, all three of them are bothered by some revelers at another table that start heckling and chanting at them, but it’s Joseph who snaps, smacking the table as he yells at the group to knock it off. To be honest, I’m not sure what Dumont might be doing in these scenes besides establishing Joseph as a loose cannon, a guy who’s hot-headed nature could potentially lead him to be violent. What do you make of these scenes?
Jim: Well, this and other key scenes address Dumont’s central concern of the film, as I read it, about civility, or what it means to not only be in, but assist with creating, a civilization. There are two important things at work: aggression and submission. Sorry if this all sounds a bit academic, but it’s just how I understand Dumont. There are two opposing forms of aggression, one that expects good-natured submission – the big table doing that taunting singing thing I’ve seen in other French films, but still don’t fully understand – and another aggressiveness that snarls and attacks – Joseph – expecting shamed submission. The point is the mutually dependent relationship between the two, between aggression and submission, and how that is identifiable in civilizations and how they operate. Notice that the taunting, singing table singles out two women to target, even though there are women at the singing table. It’s a kind of self-effacing aggression that expects to be tolerated, because it’s in good fun, and isn’t frightening or violent, as Joseph’s angry response is. But the submission they result in is the same, as equally debilitating and soul-crushing, as the looks on all the victims’ faces prove. Joseph’s aggressive driving is also a part of the same thing. Remember that the first time we see a speeding vehicle in town is when a tractor trailer tears down the street outside Pharaon’s and Domino’s homes, which insults their sense of civility, but when we’re in Joseph’s car doing the same thing, Domino, at least, is no longer so insulted. She submits to Joseph’s aggression, but not the truck driver’s. I hate being blunt, but Dumont is talking about big societal dynamics around control, and to what citizens are willing to submit.
But I feel like I’m dominating with my pedantry. Michael, please, talk about something that stuck out for you.
Michael: Not too academic for me, I love those ideas.
I’ll mention a couple of moments that I particularly like. The first comes in the process of Pharaon doing some actual police work: one day, he follows two young girls on their route home from school in hopes of finding evidence or clues along the way. He rides their bus with them and follows at a distance after they deboard and begin their walk home through the fields, eventually passing the spot where the victim’s body was discovered. Pharaon stops and stares at a roadside memorial that’s been set up, then suddenly lets out a howl and runs across the field until he comes to a fence. I don’t think there’s anything in the movie that I relate to more than Pharaon’s instinctive reaction here. Pharaon might spend a lot of time with Domino and Joseph because he has feelings towards Domino, but I suspect that hanging out with them also serves as a distraction from thinking about the nauseating crime he’s tasked with solving. When he sees the memorial, his response is an incredibly human one; his anger and sadness towards our capacity for violence is ineffable, so it comes pouring out in a bellow, and he can’t help but want to turn away and run from what he’s seen. I love how it flies in the face of how police detectives are conventionally depicted. They’re always too hardened to be affected by what ghastly crimes they investigate. Not Pharaon.
Another moment I love is when Pharaon and his boss, the police chief, stop at a farm to question someone (I don’t think we even learn who they’re questioning – I’m not sure that it matters). Pharaon steps into the barn by himself to find a mother pig nursing her piglets. He kneels down and gently pets the mother pig. Any way I can think of to describe the scene makes it sound cornier than it actually is. It’s one of a handful of movingly tender moments in the film that function as vital counterpoints to the discomfort and shock we experience elsewhere (Pharaon and Domino hugging is another such scene). It’s not hard to find criticisms of the film that accuse Dumont of doing little more than trying to push our buttons, but the gentler moments clarify that the scope of human experience that he’s interested in is actually quite wide.
There are a bunch of moments that I’m still not sure what to make of and that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. Pharaon embracing the drug dealer who comes into the station for questioning, his trip to psychiatric hospital, his trip to the beach with Domino and Joseph – any specific impressions of these scenes?
Jim: I’d love to talk about any and all of those moments. It occurs to me that many of them, and other instances, can be observed as moments of tactility, including smell, that indicate a common theme in Dumont films about the human animal, or the beast within the man, or, as is literally the case in Li’l Quinquin, the man within the beast.
But since it’s such an outlier, let’s look first at Pharaon’s visit to the psychiatric hospital, as he follows up on a theory that an inmate might have committed the crime. Many of the scenes involving actual police work, or investigating, have an air about them of rote futility, which would go on to epitomize how Dumont depicts police in subsequent films. The trip yields no insights, only another episode of Pharaon’s penchant for effusive empathy, when he watches some patients ambling about on the lawn and he embraces the nurse whose idea it was to pursue that angle in the first place. However, as Pharaon is leaving, he spots Joseph entering the facility. After multiple watches, I still can’t figure out the relevance of this. Any thoughts?
Michael: I’m not exactly sure what Dumont might be getting at in that moment, but Pharaon’s trip to the hospital does strike me as interesting in a few ways. First, I’m struck by how peaceful and secure the facility seems when Pharaon first arrives. It’s a sprawling, beautifully manicured complex made up of a number of brick buildings, with trimmed hedges, flower gardens, and lawns outside that are all pristine. As Pharaon enters the complex and makes his way to the nurse he came to see, he goes through a security gate, then is escorted through a series of rooms and locked doors before finally arriving in a hospital bedroom. None of it stood out to me on first viewing, but as I look back on it, I find Joseph’s coming in through a building side door with apparent ease to be more than a little disconcerting. It’s a breach of this unexpectedly serene space that’s designed to keep its inhabitants inside, because as the nurse tells Pharaon, the facility houses “some crazies” who could be responsible for the crime. The outside world, where people recklessly speed, heckle and embarrass each other, and are barbarically violent, seems far less safe than the hospital. In hindsight, Joseph coming onto the grounds seems like a predator entering a sanctuary. Who’s really protected from who in this situation?
Jim: Well, yes, I think much of what the psychiatric hospital sequence is commenting on is the tendency to point suspicion at marginalized and defenseless members of society for committing horrifying and inexplicable crimes, when they’re no more likely than anyone, if not far less likely. It’s the same thing going on with the Algerian drug-dealer the police haul in for questioning. Same dynamic, same bigoted, fearful targeting of perceived “others”. I’m inclined to think your reading of Joseph’s easy access to the facility might be a cleverly underhanded expression of that inversion of trust by a predatory person of privilege, but since we don’t know the extent of Joseph’s depravity at that point, I’m less than convinced. I guess it will remain the single thing in this film I can’t yet fully get my arms around.
So, let’s return to the Algerian drug-dealer. It’s one of many scenes where we see that Pharaon is an extraordinarily sensate person, as he interrogates the suspect by smelling him. With his hand placed firmly on the back of the man’s neck, Pharaon intimately rubs the suspect’s face with his own, his prominent nose probing the suspect’s skin like an olfactory flashlight. Later, in his office, Pharaon smells his own hand that was holding the man’s neck. I think Dumont gives us two different ways to evaluate this, or maybe different points along a single continuum, but let’s first look at other examples.
In one of the many scenes that take place in front of their homes, as they try to keep cool in the summer heat, Pharaon stands with Domino, engaged in their funny little small-talk. Domino complains about the heat and how she’s “dripping,” indicating her armpit. Pharaon slowly lowers his nose to Domino’s shoulder. She laughs, but understands his eccentricities enough not to be shocked. There are at least two instances I can remember of him laying his hands on vehicles, as if to sense something, once with the bus that ran the fateful route when the girl was attacked, and, just as notably, the back of Joseph’s car when Pharaon see’s him at the psychiatric hospital. Pharaon also makes several lingering observations of his boss’s body, staring at the sweaty back of his neck and his pudgy abdomen. Compare that to the scene with the pigs you referenced, a static shot of Pharaon’s hand stroking the pink skin and white hair of the big mama hog. Pharaon observes the world through carnality, in an intimate, visceral, bodily way. In that way, he is Everyman. But, importantly, he is never sexual, ever. Other characters are, intensely so, but never Pharaon (Schotté was explicit with Dumont that he would not do sex scenes, so it’s Schotté creating the character more than Dumont’s script).
In further instances, it’s a carnality that defines characters other than Pharaon. I think specifically of the moment during the beach trip when Pharaon, Joseph and Domino are heading down a boardwalk and encounter an old associate of Pharaon’s. He’s a blonde, handsome, strapping man wearing a tight Speedo. We see Domino stare at his bulge. The blonde man then looks at her in a knowing way. She retreats to a nearby bench, while the men continue talking, where we see her press her skirt down between her legs. She remains there until Joseph and Pharaon continue walking, and Joseph turns and whistles at her to catch up. It’s remarkable how much is communicated in this small scene.
It’s easy to interpret a lot of these sensate, corporeal images, or exchanges, as means of communication, of beholding, of divining, even absorbing, some inner, invisible spirit of things, of people and things communicating with one another through some kind of osmosis. I think, though, that’s less Dumont’s intent than to simply concentrate attention on the corporeal, and all animals’, including humans’, innate attention to physicality. It’s a powerful, even overwhelming urge, to stare at, to touch, to smell, the bodies and things of the world. And that‘s it. It’s just the human animal sniffing the assholes of the world. Maybe it’s communication, or just confirmation, nothing more than a substantiation of existence, as Dumont drives toward a fundamental understanding of…humanity. There are plenty of social and political ramifications of this, with which Dumont, as an intellectual, is more than happy to engage, but, as an artist, he avoids. And rightly so.
Michael: I’ll tug a little at something you said that jumps out to me. Through all these sensory experiences and glances at each other’s bodies, the characters are perhaps tapping into “some inner, invisible spirit of things.” To what extent would you characterize this as a spiritual film? I think it takes a pretty obvious leap in that direction with some of its images near the end, but on the other hand, Dumont is going to great lengths to suggest the way in which we, as humans, aren’t anything more than hunks of flesh that eat, sweat, sit and stare, attack, have sex. I wonder how many of the folks who dislike the movie find it to be a reductive view of humanity. I don’t think I feel that way, but I’m also not sure what the link is between Dumont’s portrayal of us as animals versus beings with perhaps some opportunity for transcendent experience.
Jim: I said it’s easy to interpret these sensory inputs as pointing to “some inner, invisible spirit of things,” though I don’t endorse that interpretation, nor do I think that’s what Dumont intends. I think he leaves it as a possibility, but isn’t advancing it. By the same token, I don’t think L’humanité is a spiritual film at all, certainly not by design. Although Dumont casts Pharaon as a Christ-like figure, it’s not to promote a Christian world view, or a Christian understanding of humanity, but to promote compassion and empathy in a strictly secular humanist perspective. I think he’s endorsing the idea that people, any person, can be Christ-like, and thereby dismisses divinity.
Recognizing the animal nature of humanity is to accept humans for what we truly are. At first, we only exist, without the limiting effects of essence, as organic beings in space. Employing that peculiar and unique human consciousness, we then make choices. What we do, how we behave, how we treat each other, how we treat the planet and other animals, or outer space, and other worlds, for that matter, is entirely up to us, and will shape the world we live in. It’s each individual’s responsibility to create the world. You can be like Joseph, and spew contempt, ill-will and bad faith into the world. Or you can be like Pharaon, and extend a childlike innocence into everything you do. Or a billion other options. But all of them are purely human, no more and no less. Joseph and Pharaon are identical in their humanity. I’ll say that again, with emphasis. Joseph and Pharaon are identical in their humanity, and deserve to be treated as such. The difference is what each chooses to do with that humanity. Dumont is outspoken about this, and makes it explicit in his films. If we create a world where we dehumanize others, even the worst of us, then we dehumanize us all. The ability to love even the most evil person, as Pharaon does when he confronts Joseph after learning he’s the murderer, isn’t something only saintly people can do. When Pharaon levitates in his garden, or assumes the sins of others, as the final scene suggests, Dumont isn’t saying that Pharaon is in some way divine. In fact, quite the opposite. Pharaon’s base humanity is unquestionable. He’s no one special. If he can do it, well, so can you. But without civility, good will and good faith, that’s impossible.
I know it’s not yours, as you stated, but to think that view, the one I just described, is a reductive view of humanity, then I can only deduce the person who thinks that considers the divine an imperative, that without a god in the world humanity is diminished. I really don’t want to get into a debate about religion, but honestly, that notion is insane to me, as it is to Dumont as well.
All the stuff in the film about civility, about treating others with kindness and respect, and all the little examples of people not doing that, or kind of doing that, or, as with Pharaon, completely doing that, are all instances of people creating the world. The fun-loving table of chanters in the restaurant keep passive aggression alive and well in the world. Pharaon’s boss, the chief inspector, who constantly complains, berates children and shirks responsibility, keeps incompetence alive and well. Domino’s bored, defiant complacency keeps mediocrity in place. Joseph’s general shittiness contaminates everything and keeps evil, even the most pedestrian varieties, alive and well in the world. In each and every one of those cases, an individual is making a choice that shapes the world in a specific way. Dumont reduces all of them to their fundamental, animal humanness, then shows them as their conscious choices shape them, and how those choices ripple out into the world around them.
I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s how I interpret Dumont’s intent with it, a message that I, for one, find tremendously uplifting, because it shoves aside all the bullshit, and gets down to only what exists. But first and foremost, Dumont is an artist, and his representation of these ideas is often expressionistic and allegorical, depicting a world adjacent to ours, but certainly not ours, all the better to underscore those specific details he wants us to see.
But I feel like we’re wandering away from all the visual and dramatic delights of this film. Though the philosophical ideas that ground it are critical to understanding the film, without the art, none of it matters. You wanna talk about some of the artistic and technical choices Dumont makes? The way that Dumont mics his lead performers always fascinates me, so that no matter how distant in the frame they may be, you can hear them breathing and sniffing and grunting like they’re foregrounded. Or that very self-referential bowl of fruit. To get back to the elemental treatment, the way the sky, the sprawling farm land and the ocean serve to place the characters in very specific relations to themselves and others, is sublime.
Michael: There’s no better place to start talking about the craft than with the terrific opening shot, which has us looking up a grassy hill that reaches a little over half way up from the bottom of the frame, with a few trees over on the left, and a figure, who we learn is Pharaon, crossing the entirety of the frame from left to right. Just as you said, even though the camera is some distance from Pharaon, we hear him panting as he trudges across the hill’s undulating crest, which nicely collapses a sense of intimacy and distance into a single feeling. As the best opening shots usually do, it encapsulates one of the film’s formal principles: Dumont will be moving at Pharaon’s own pace, no faster, no slower.
There’s a balanced mix of traveling shots and static shots throughout the movie, and both can be striking. One shot that I particularly like comes in the sequence when Pharaon follows the two young girls on their trip home from school. There obviously are tons of shots in the film that are from Pharaon’s point of view, but this scene has one of the few (maybe the only?) point of view shot where the camera is actually moving. The camera pushes down a dirt path just as the girls are curving around some bushes and leaving our (and Pharaon’s) sight, the wind rustling through the leaves on both sides of the trail. It’s not a lengthy moment, but it’s a chilling one. The air feels charged with something.
Other images are more portrait-like. One that immediately comes to mind is when Pharaon visits the hospital. The nurse stares at Pharaon just as Pharaon, facing the window, slowly begins to shut his eyes, their faces perpendicular and awkwardly close together. The tension strangely dissipates a second later as they hug, and it becomes a tender moment. I really like how often Dumont is able to conjure multiple different feelings in just a shot or two. Sensations of discomfort and tenderness are constantly giving way to and mingling with each other.
I appreciate the general looseness of the movie’s overall structure too. Not only does Pharaon’s sluggishness and hyper-sensitivity make him a somewhat humorously atypical cop, but it’s also kind of funny how little actual detective work he does in the first half of the movie. It’s brilliant how Dumont uses the crime genre simply as scaffolding for his more philosophical concerns.
Any visual details or formal choices you particularly respond to?
Jim: I’ll go with the elemental details. Pharaon is such an earthy character, so bound to the land, that when he levitates, it’s shocking. From the opening shot you described, walking across that ridgeline, to the following scene with him face-down in the heavy, tilled farm soil, to him working his own garden, and the long bike ride up the hill, and back down, to the other scene you described, of him screaming as he runs across the field after following the two girls, Pharaon is continuously associated with the earth, and moving over it. As the film’s most grounded character, it makes sense. I love your observation that Dumont allows the film to proceed at Pharaon’s shuffling, but steady pace, which, now that I reflect on it, might be the most important decision he made in constructing this film. A lot of Dumont’s films unspool languidly, and in L’humanité it’s synched to the protagonist’s own personal rhythm. I think he does something very similar in Camille Claudel, 1915, though Juliette Binoche’s pace is a bit more agitated.
But my favorite image in the whole film is Domino in the ocean. There’s something about her characteristic drive when she walks, pressing into the waves, with the forces of the ocean and sky behind her – the churn of the English Channel – that makes that the most enduring image for me. Domino feels as at home in the ocean as Pharaon feels face down in clumps of earth.
I have to give a lot of credit to Séverine Caneele, who plays Domino. Another local amateur, the film elevated her to celebrity status in France at the time, and for good reason. Her performance is pretty amazing.
And I do love all the shots around town, a place called Bailleul, the town Dumont is from, in French Flanders, on the border with Belgium. I don’t know how he managed to empty it out so completely, but it lends the film an otherworldly, imaginary quality. And just that region in general, where Dumont sets most of his films, I’ve developed a fondness for, with its undulating hills and huge stretches of farmland, under a sky that can be as big and open one day as it is leaden and crushed against the earth the next.
So I gotta ask you, how many films have you seen where the protagonist gets a haircut in the middle of the story?
Michael: Not many! Actually, it didn’t even register with me on first viewing. It hit me on the second viewing as Pharaon starts to levitate. That leads me to also confess that initially, the significance of Pharaon being cuffed in the final shot flew right over my head. Like the shot where we see Pharaon levitate, Dumont doesn’t go out of his way to compose an image that ensures we see exactly what’s happening. In the garden, Pharaon doesn’t rise off the soil more than a couple feet; if you looked too quickly, you might not even notice that he was floating at all. In the final shot, Pharaon is sitting down and angled away from the camera, such that it’s not abundantly obvious that he’s handcuffed. Those moments stand in pretty stark contrast to the directness of Dumont’s gaze elsewhere. I like that Dumont trusts his audience to be attentive viewers. I’d much prefer to miss something at first glance than to have it overemphasized.
Want to talk about the final few scenes and how they strike you?
Jim: Given the intellectual heft of the ideas Dumont works with in his films, he has to trust his audience to notice subtleties. He knows his films are only going to appeal to a discerning and sharp-witted audience, so isn’t going to insult them with overemphasis on certain details.
So the film ends with four significant scenes. I’ll go through them, including my interpretations. I know there are other ways of interpreting them, but I’ll leave that for others to articulate, including maybe yourself.
After making up with Domino, following another of their minor spats, and learning that Domino and her workmates have given up on their strike (two nice little closures), we watch as Pharaon walks into the police station, where there are a number of uniformed officers standing around. When he enquires about what’s going on, he learns that an arrest has been made in the case of the raped and murdered little girl. The chief inspector tells him to guard the accused in his office, while he attends to other business. When Pharaon steps into the chief’s office and dismisses the guard, he realizes who has been arrested, and slowly walks over to the chair where we see Joseph from behind, hunched over in his familiar lavender shirt and blue track warm-ups.
Switching to a closer frontal view, Pharaon asks “It was you?”, which Joseph confirms with a nod, sobbing deeply, his face deep-red with fear and shame. Pharaon then does something very similar to what we saw him do earlier with the detained Algerian drug-dealer. He strokes Joseph’s hair; he rubs his face against Joseph’s face. Then he lifts Joseph to his feet and kisses him passionately on the mouth, while Joseph continues to sob. But the earlier scene with the Arab man, and everything else we’ve learned about Pharaon, leads us, or me anyway (remembering how I reacted to it the first time), to intuitively understand what Pharaon is doing with this very bizarre reaction to learning that someone he knows, someone he might call a friend, is a monster. Because we know now that Pharaon is practically a saint in his humanity. Or that’s Dumont’s little joke, anyway, as with the levitating. Pharaon is just incapable, or nay, unwilling, to dismiss the humanity of anyone. The hair-stroking and face-rubbing intends to comfort; the kissing intends to share. But he’s also disgusted, rightly, and shoves Joseph back down into his chair, and walks off.
Cut to Pharaon standing in his little public garden plot, holding a bouquet of the flowers we’ve watched him grow, staring off into his deeply inner distance. I resist interpreting this placid, static scene, because it just feels right not to rationalize it. It’s Pharaon’s completely soulful self, as if on ceremony, like a chin-raised heroic figure in a Social Realist mural, gazing confidently into the future, holding flowers. Cut then to Domino in close-up, her head lowered, mournful. Slowly she begins to cry, and cry, and cry. Then Pharaon’s arm comes into view and he raises them both to their feet and they embrace. Every time I watch this, it gets to me more, imagining what’s going through Domino’s mind, and her heart, because she does truly love Joseph. But then, having been so intensely intimate with Joseph, which we’ve seen explicitly several times, knowing what he did to that little girl, she must be in unimaginable distress. Although he doesn’t kiss her, like he did Joseph, there’s a strong sense here, too, of Pharaon sharing, partaking, maybe to a degree relieving, someone of their pain, guilt, and shame.
The film ends with a static shot of Pharaon, back in the chief’s office, sitting in the chair we just saw Joseph sitting in. Pharaon leans forward, his arms resting on his thighs. Because of the angle of the shot, slightly behind from the left, only the sliver of a handcuff is visible above his left wrist. Cut then, just as in the previous scene with Joseph, to a close-up frontal view, of Pharaon looking off into the distance. The meaning is clear enough to me, that Pharaon assumes his brethren’s sins, as we all do, whether we know it, like it, or not. It’s a Christian image through and through, but one that speaks only to a universal truism about our identical identity as humans. I know others may read it otherwise, but it’s incontestable to me. Your take?
Michael: Your reading of these scenes feels pretty spot-on; I don’t think I can proffer any other interpretation. But I have a couple of thoughts. In the scene where Pharaon discovers that Joseph was the rapist/murderer, what’s shocking isn’t just that we see Pharaon demonstrating an astounding capacity for forgiveness, it’s how Pharaon expresses forgiveness and empathy towards Joseph that’s startling. Pharaon doesn’t just, say, take Joseph’s hand in his, or hug Joseph, he gives Joseph a big ‘ol smooch! After Dumont has sketched Pharaon as a kind of curiously sexless guy, no less. I’m still wondering what value Dumont sees in it being a gesture that’s so completely bizarre in the context of Pharaon and Joseph’s relationship. It might not matter much, maybe it just as easily could have been a hug instead.
I also wonder if there’s a distinction worth making between Joseph functioning as a stand-in for humanity’s capacity for violence in general, versus him as a specific individual that Dumont thinks, in the context of this particular story, is deserving of forgiveness for his crimes. Does that make sense? In other words, I have an easier time reading Pharaon as empathetic towards the human condition in an abstract sense rather than as empathetic towards any specific person, regardless of how they’ve chosen to act. I think we might differ in that regard. Earlier in our conversation, you emphasized that “Joseph and Pharaon are identical in their humanity, and deserve to be treated as such.” They’re equal to each other and all the rest of us in their flesh-and-blood makeup and their potential for endless forms of behavior, violence included, but they’re not at all equal in what they have actually done. That might be a pointlessly obvious thing to say, but I say it because the ending only works for me if Pharaon is read as empathizing with what’s in Joseph’s nature, not what he actually did.
Jim: I don’t think we differ at all, though I’m curious as to why you think we do. I must have failed to articulate my thoughts clearly. Hardly the first time.
Joseph is absolutely a stand-in. Like Domino, he’s an everyperson. That’s why he’s given so little individuality. Pharaon, on the other hand, is awarded individuality simply because he’s so unusual. There are lots of Josephs in the world, but few Pharaons. And you’re right, Pharaon and Joseph are not equal in their actions, as they are in their humanity, because, just as existence precedes essence, equality, as we’ve narrowly defined it here as a kind of common starting point, precedes an individual’s actions and the relative desirability of that behavior within a given society’s range of acceptable outcomes. Only through action do Pharaon and Joseph distinguish themselves as individuals, and in Joseph’s case just barely. So yes, to your final point, Pharaon empathizes with Joseph’s nature, or, more precisely, his humanity, despite his actions. I despair to think of the person who would empathize with what he did.
All of that then to say I think we agree. To the way Pharaon expresses compassion, I’m pretty sure that’s all Schotté. He told Dumont he wouldn’t do sex scenes, or kiss Domino, so kissing Joseph would seem to be, to me, unequivocally Schotté ‘s choice.
Michael: In that case, forget that I said we weren’t aligned! I think it was just a matter of specifying the way in which we think Joseph and Pharaon “deserve to be treated” equally, based on their shared humanity. I might swap the word “treated” with “regarded”. I suspect that viewers out there who are repulsed by the ending might read it too literally. If you mistake Pharaon as forgiving Joseph for his actions, I imagine that’d be fatal to one’s impression of the movie overall.
It’s been quite a while since I came around on a movie like I have on L’Humanité, and hearing your take on it has deepened my appreciation for the movie considerably. Anything else you’d like to touch on that we haven’t already discussed?
Jim: I can go with “regarded” over “treated”. But I will place a big red flag next to the word “forgiven” or “forgiveness.” Note, I have not used that word, since it has no bearing on Pharaon’s reaction to Joseph’s actions. He’s not forgiving Joseph at all, and to read it as such is false. Pharaon, by embracing and showing compassion for Joseph, is only acknowledging, confirming and enforcing Joseph’s humanity, and by doing so bolsters humanity in general. Pharaon isn’t willing or able to strip Joseph of his humanity, as many others in his place would, but neither is he forgiving him. He’s simply acknowledging the fullness of humanity, and Joseph’s place within it.
I don’t have anything more, though I could go on endlessly refining my language to define these ideas. Dumont always excites me with his masterful balance between what is thought and what is felt, between beauty and ugliness, between comedy and drama. It thrills me that I could help sway you to a more generous estimation of L’Humanité. I think it’s a pretty important and beautiful film.
You and your co-host Taylor have been doing some cool shows recently on your Drink in the Movies podcast. I really enjoyed your two-part best of 2020 rundown. To tie a neat bow on this conversation, I want you to give me your top five from that list, fifth to first, including title and director, with some brief descriptors.
Michael: Glad to hear you enjoyed those episodes of the podcast! Year-end wrap-ups are always fun to record. Painful too though, since there are always more movies that you wish you could have endorsed. I’ll cut to the chase, here are my top five.
5. The Nest (Sean Durkin): A brooding, slow burn psychological thriller, set in the 1980s, about a family of four that relocates from the American suburbs to an old mansion in the English countryside. The move precipitates an emotional crisis for the family, the primary focus of which is the unraveling of husband and wife’s relationship. Durkin’s direction is thick with unease – at points, it’s as if the film is about to become an outright horror movie – and Jude Law and Carrie Coon both give tremendous performances.
4. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack): Clocking in at a breezy 61 minutes, this is an intensely delightful, continent-hopping experimental film in which Mack brings a variety of colorful and patterned textiles to life through stop motion animation. It’s like a travelogue, but instead of following a person around the globe, we follow these eye-popping fabrics that Mack studies across much of her work. It’s joyously kinetic, and features lively, incredibly catchy music, much of which Mack composed herself.
3. To The Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa): Coincidentally, this is also a travelogue. Sort of. We follow Yoko, wonderfully played by Atsuko Maeda. She’s the host of a Japanese reality travel show currently on assignment in Uzbekistan, and contrary to the bubbly personality that she puts on for her show, she’s a deeply anxious and nervous young woman off-camera. Kurosawa is best known for his horror movies, but here, he crafts an idiosyncratic character study about a woman feeling alienated and aching to pursue her dreams (which don’t involve reality television).
2. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt): This movie wrecked me. A micro-budget drama, it centers on the relationship between two young women who have been friends since childhood. One of them is emotionally unstable, and as the years pass, it puts a strain on their friendship. I absolutely adore Sallitt’s understated filmmaking, especially his treatment of the passage of the time, and Tallie Medel’s low-key, immensely endearing performance is one of my favorites in recent memory. It brings me great joy to know you loved this one too.
1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa): Slow, mournful, utterly ravishing, this is a work of docufiction based on the experiences of its titular character, Vitalina Varela, who immigrated from Cape Verde to Lisbon 25 years after her husband left her and never returned. She immigrates after learning that he has fallen ill, but she arrives just days after he has already passed away. We spend the film with Vitalina in the slum just outside of Lisbon where several other Costa films are set, sitting with her as she grieves and is haunted by her past. Costa’s images, the darkness and chiaroscuro of which is often compared to Vermeer, are staggeringly beautiful. For those with the patience with it, it’s an incredible watch.
I’ll throw the same request back at you. Give me your top five from 2020.
Jim: I really look forward to watching that Kurosawa film when it’s more broadly available. The Nest, I agree, is fantastic. Costa’s film I tried, but didn’t have the patience for.
I was really impressed by An Easy Girl, from director Rebecca Zlotowski, enough that it settled all the way up at number five. Josephine Decker’s Shirley wasn’t as bizarre as her earlier films, but that didn’t prevent it from a respectable number four. The most viscerally thrilling film of the year was Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, and probably deserves better than my number three spot. The most visually memorable film of the year was Swallow, by first time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, which cements it at number two. Number one goes to Fourteen by director Dan Sallitt, because it’s the single best film craft I enjoyed from any 2020 film. I’m grateful to you for turning me onto it.
Thanks for talking all things L’Humanité with me, Michael, and for putting up with my esoterica. Dumont always revs me up. Fun as usual. Hope to see you again.
Michael: So long as you’ll keep having me, I’ll most definitely be back!