France 1999

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Bailleul, Flanders. Police lieutenant Pharaon de Winter's car radio summons him to an emergency: local schoolgirl Nadège Smagghe has been found raped and murdered. The town police station is too small (and de Winter's superintendent too incompetent) to cope with the case; the investigation is later taken over by officers from Lille.

Left two years earlier by his partner and their child, de Winter lives with his mother Eliane and dotes on his near-neighbour Domino, a factory worker in a relationship with bus driver Joseph. Aware of de Winter's feelings, Domino frequently invites him to join her and Joseph for dinners and excursions. The jealous de Winter often finds Joseph irritating, while Joseph considers the policeman boring. Eliane asks Domino to keep more distance from her son.

De Winter's enquiries focus on the school bus which dropped off the victim shortly before she was murdered, the Eurostar train which passes close by the crime scene, and the local mental hospital. Suddenly Joseph is arrested and held as the prime suspect. De Winter embraces him in custody and tries to console Domino. Some time later, though, it is de Winter who sits handcuffed in the superintendent's interrogation chair.


Bruno Dumont's follow-up to La Vie de Jésus, his 1996 study of boredom in a small town in northern France, is a virtual remake with an odder protagonist: the same unreadable landscapes, the same off-kilter film grammar, the same spasms of frantic sex, similar lonely and taciturn characters and similar dramatic situations (an adult son living with his irritating mother, a woman who startles her nervous admirer by proffering her vagina). Most of all, L'Humanité reprises the earlier film's quest for humanist warmth in a cold climate, again with secular spiritual implications. This time, of course, the film takes its overall shape and structure from a police investigation into a paedophile murder, but Dumont's indifference to both genre and the nuts and bolts of police procedure erases any narrative tension. The reason Pharaon de Winter is a cop is simply that it gives him a licence to stare at people and things.

Discussion of the film's causes and effects has to start from the unemphatic revelation in the penultimate shot that Pharaon de Winter is the target of his own enquiry - less an Agatha Christie twist than a perverse (or at least idiosyncratic) grace note. The denouement retrospectively makes sense of much of de Winter's eccentric behaviour, from his slowness in responding to the emergency call to his silent cry for help in front of a canvas of a little girl by his ancestor and namesake (a real-life painter of the late 19th/early 20th century) and his reaction to the idea that his 'rival' Joseph, the lover of de Winter's neighbour Domino, could be a scapegoat for the crime. But the first-time viewer, unaware of the burden of guilt on de Winter's back, is presented with one of the most bizarre protagonists in film history: a slow-witted, inarticulate sad-sack whose heightened emotional responses are always printed across his face, a man who confronts the world with a wide-eyed stare but sometimes turns utterly inward, apparently overwhelmed by his own thoughts and impulses. And even when the viewer knows the truth about de Winter, his inner life - and consequently many of his actions - remains unfathomable.

Midway through the film there's a strange scene in the police station. Left alone with an Algerian who admits to dealing drugs, de Winter clasps hold of the man, rubs the back of his head and presses his own face against the man's, nosing his cheek and neck as if trying to assimilate his 'evil'. The Algerian is left near-traumatised when de Winter breaks off and leaves. The only thing clear about the scene is that some kind of moral struggle is going on; whether it's between the two men, within de Winter or out there in the objective world is moot. It's the first concrete intimation of the film's underlying moral drama, although the drama itself remains teasingly abstract.

Thankfully, Dumont seems to realise that the scene could equally be read as an absurdist take on police interrogation techniques. And it later turns out that the scene has another function: it sets up de Winter's final scene with Joseph, which replays the physical action but with some important differences. Joseph has been arrested and is sitting despairing in the superintendent's office; de Winter comes in, expressing incredulity, and gives him the same treatment he gave the Algerian - with the supplement of an extended kiss on the mouth - before dropping Joseph back in the chair. Understandably baffled, Joseph seems to take this as an unexpected homosexual overture. For de Winter, though, it seems more like a benediction-cum-leave-taking, a gesture which at last frees him to approach Domino, whom he dotes on.

There are no more answers here than there were in La Vie de Jésus; it's not even sure whether non-actor Emmanuel Schotté is giving an amazing, fearless performance as de Winter or simply being himself. Dumont amplifies the moral and spiritual questions through an editing syntax which robs the strong and very physical imagery - allotment flowers, human genitals, a sweat-soaked shirt collar - of its expected certainties: fades to black at moments when de Winter's problems are closest to the surface, point-of-view shots which fail to match the perspective of the gazer, cuts which link apparently disparate things. The overall project to construct an intellectual framework around the generally squalid lives of inarticulate working-class folk brings to mind the stance that Lindsay Anderson and his Free Cinema friends adopted in the late 50s and early 60s. But despite its portentous title, L'Humanité knocks films such as This Sporting Life (1963) off the screen. Shot entirely on location with a non-professional cast, it dares to go as far beyond 'realism' as The Matrix.


Bruno Dumont
Jean Bréhat
Rachid Bouchareb
Bruno Dumont
Director of Photography
Yves Cape
Guy Lecorne
Richard Cuvillier
©3B Productions/ARTE France Cinéma
Production Companies
3B Productions/ARTE France Cinéma/CRRAV co-production with CNC/Ministère de la Culture/Canal +
With the aid of the Région Nord Pas de Calais
With the support of Procirep/Prix Jean Vigo
Production Supervisor
Muriel Merlin
Unit Production Manager
Nicolas Picard
Unit Manager
Philippe Jacquier
Assistant Directors
Xavier Christiaens
Claude Debonnet
Yann Olivier Wicht
Script Supervisor
Virginie Barbay
Bruno Dumont
Claude Debonnet
Steadicam Operator
Jacques Monge
Special Effects
Main Street
Set Decorator
Marc Philippe Guerig
Costume Designer
Nathalie Raoul
Key Make-up
Férouz Zaafour
"Pancrace Royer"
Sound Engineer
Pierre Mertens
Jean Pierre Laforce
Sound Editor
Mathilde Muyard
Sound Effects
Philippe Penot
Emmanuel Schotté
Pharaon de Winter
Séverine Caneele
Philippe Tullier
Ghislain Ghesquière
police chief
Ginette Allègre
Eliane, Pharaon's mother
Daniel Leroux
Arnaud Brejon de la Lavergnée
Daniel Pétillon
Jean, the cop
Robert Bunzl
English cop
Dominique Pruvost
angry worker
Jean Luc Dumont
Diane Gray
Paul Gray
British travellers
Sophie Vercamer
Murielle Houche
Pascaline Guyot
Liliane Facq
Myriam Dehaine
Jean Beulque
the guide
Bernard Catrycke
Nadège's father
Marthe Vandenberg
Amanda Goemaere
Honorine Douche
Marie Thérèse Cadet
Denis Claerebout
Suzanne Berteloot
Sylvie Perel
Domino's friend
Malik Haquem
the dealer
Alain Beaufromé
Pierre-Olivier Thery
Pharaon's colleagues
Frédéric Engelaere
young worker
Françoise Blavoet
Chantal Desmettre
Noëlla Froigné
Jocelyne Vasseur
Annie Hennon
Pierre Raes
visitors to Fort
Pierre Harrisson
man in pyjamas
Mathieu Daussy
Gaëlle Coppin
Marion Robyn
Laurent Pecqueur
Sébastion Zanetti
Cédric Delplace
Julie Legras
Grégory Duboz
Cédric Camberlyn
Sylvain Backerlandt
students at brasserie
Marie Hélène Aernout
Lucien Hallynck
man wearing béret
André Geloen
Jean-François Carpentier
Théophile Boidin
Jérôme Pollet
Sébastion Muselet
Géry Laforce
bus driver
Franck Lesage
Micheline Cerouter
Jacky Hourdouillie
Marie Thérèse François
Leslie Benault
Edwige Benault
Heidelore Krämer
Nicole Willier
Sylvie Verheyde
Pierre Verheyde
Famille Janssens
Régis Maillard
Monique Laurent
Philippe Millet
Patrice Souchet
Florent Souchet
Grégory Ryckewaert
Hamid Bouderja
museum technicians
Daniel Braems
Eric Bailleul
Guy Volpoet
Bernard Vanhaecke
Joël Boulinguez
J.J. Leurette
Michel Vanmeenen
Régis Larridon
Dominique Deroo
Stéphanie Wyts
Philippe Duriez
Ivanne Duriez
Alexis Duriez
Noël Debaene
Jean René Delaval
Christophe Muys
Ludovic Cousin
Jacques Gilliot
Bernard Marescaux
Sylvain Boulanger
Jean Pierre Doise
Gilles Lelièvre
Artificial Eye Film Company
13,288 feet
147 minutes 39 seconds
Dolby SRD
In Colour
2.35:1 [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011