(Humanite, France - 1999)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Emmanuel Schotte, Severine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquere
Genre: Drama
Director: Bruno Dumont
Screenplay: Bruno Dumont
Cinematography: Yves Cape
Composer: Richard Cuvillier
Runtime: 148 minutes

Did it take 100 years for a film to force the audience to think, or does it just seem that way after viewing Bruno Dumont’s masterpiece? Dumont was a philosophy teacher, which obviously is much different than being a philosopher, but the distinction is nonetheless crucial to his goal. He’s not trying to sell the audience on a way of life, but rather to force them to contemplate and reflect.

The viewer tends to have an opposite relationship with every film. It’s like a dialogue, when they talk you (hopefully) listen quietly. When they are quite, you talk in a sense (your words probably aren’t technically verbalized, but they are floating around in your mind). The brainwashing power of the medium lies in overloading the viewer, the constant barrage overwhelms them, forcing them to simply accept. The result is a perpetual denial of audience analysis, forcing every response to be on cue, every reaction of the knee jerk variety. There are many differences between Dumont and the legenardy director he’s often linked to, Robert Bresson, but the key is Dumont’s reliance on the long take. It’s crucial to his philosophy because it allows the audience time to explore their thoughts, provide their input.

Dumont encourages active viewing by leaving everything open to interpretation. The viewer is given an incredible amount of freedom because almost everything imposed upon them, particularly shorthand and solutions, is removed resulting in the natural replacement of audience imagination. Humanite is a rare film where no two reviews will be all that similar. A Hollywood film answers every question, so anything personal comes from agreeing or disagreeing with the movies open and shut case. Humanite is as interactive as film can be, giving a little and asking you to fill in the gaps.

Intense tedium observed with clinical precision, Humanite thrives on depicting mechanical and ritualistic events, which would be meaningless if every detail didn’t open up a series of questions the viewer will be allowed to answer. Dumont crosses a barrier even Bresson didn’t exactly break; he removes facts. His characters are very unrefined and primitive. Man sweats, eats, chokes, drools, and screws. When done right, a person staring blankly is interesting because we wonder why they are in their own world and what’s really going on inside. Is Pharaon a wide-eyed innocent, someone with a mental disability, a wounded or tramatized beast? The purposeful broad sketches force the audience to work to complete them. Dumont not only mines for the profound within the banal; he forces you to join him.

Purportedly an investigation of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, we follower the superintendent Phaoan de Winter (Emmanuel Schotte). He lives with his mother now that his wife and kid were killed. In his spare time, he tags along with his neighbor Domino (Severine Caneele), who he pines for in his own way, and her school bus driver boyfriend Joseph (Phillipp Tullier), who not surprisingly isn’t thrilled with his constant presence.

The film makes me wonder even more than I already do if it’s possible to understand another person. We don’t comprehend the essence of any of these characters; we hoist our own interpretations upon them based upon what we are shown. That may not sound like anything out of the ordinary or much of an observation, but we only see Pharaon do the most ordinary activities. He eats, exercises, watches TV, and works in the garden. We can’t find the great characteristic or achievement that makes him worthy of a film. And that’s much of the point; he is simply a member of the human race. Many people find Pharoan pathetic, but how different is he from them? If man is judged by what he does, he’s truly an everyman. There’s nothing unique about Pharoan, only about the film Humanite for consisting of the mundane rather than the exciting or profound.

Perhaps Dumont’s closest cinematic cousin is Michelangelo Antonioni. Certainly after the Zabriski Point nature of his followup Twentynine Palms, it’s obvious that his distanced wide angle landscapes provide ironic counterpoint between the lovely expansive landscapes and the inward reflecting, lonely, miserable, and alienated humans that inhabit them. Though Antonioni dealt primarily with the emptiness felt by the rich, and Dumont’s rural humans function on a more primal and primitive level, Domino is a working class version of an Antonioni character in that her entire existence seems a desperate stab at feeling something. Her attempts are almost always of a sexual nature, but her constant sex with Joseph, while animalistic, is still mechanical. She tries playing with herself in front of Pharaon, but that’s displeasing because he recoils. Though the vagina stimulating sensation is not quite worthy of Charlotte Alexandra’s character in Catherine Breillat’s vastly underrated debut A Real Young Girl, perhaps her only satisfaction comes from going in the ocean without her panties. However, as Pharaon is present it could be part of her attempts to get him to take what she’ll give, in which case, it’s success is debatable.

Pharaon is one of the great enigmas of the cinema. We feel the weight of the world on the quite, passive, and extremely sensitive star. He investigates with the kind of diligence where he contemplates the guilt of even himself. By ruling out nothing he’s in a constant state of pondering, which means he proceeds at a snails pace, lacking any urgency. Dumont lulls you into the sleepy small town atmosphere of his hometown of Bailleul, a place where man is weak and no one seems to care. Pharaon tries to love this unlovable world, but it refuses to reciprocate. We don’t know if he’s shell shocked from the loss of his family or the general malaise. He only seems able to express himself through empathy, but his brand is so awkward its most likely result will be more rejection. If soulful but inept Pharaon was a Bresson character he’d be the Priest of Ambricourt in Diary of a Country Priest. But Bresson’s priest wasn’t a monster; we’re not so sure with Pharaon. Did he kill his family and/or rape and murder the schoolgirl? I’ve never before encountered a character who could so easily be considered an angel or a devil. Innocence and guilt are irrelevant to Dumant, you suffer over an event or you don’t. Maybe Pharaon suffers because he couldn’t stop the deaths, but he watches a fight in the street through a window and merely tells a co-worker, who also chooses to look on rather than go out and break it up.

The links to Bresson come from all the artifice being removed. The only sounds are natural, albeit amplified. There’s no paint, no establishing shots, no point/counterpoint cutting scheme. The dialogue is sparse, and much of it consists of meaningless exchanges of pleasantries. The stillness is exceptional. The non professional actors not only refuse to express, but are often statuesque with their gaze never directed into the camera. Dumont’s mise-en-scene is as if the characters don’t know they are in a movie. Dumont’s goal isn’t to condense, unlike Bresson he has editor Guy Lecorne cut so infrequently we sometimes forget the film isn’t taking place in real time. The elongated takes express a collision between man and nature, desire and reality. Things are, but how to control and express them. Without that there’s only longing and misunderstanding.

The depiction of the police investigation is so lacking in every respect you are disgusted when someone is simply declared guilty. Lacking any fact or shred of evidence, our only option is to decide if we believe the person is really guilty or not based upon what we know of their personalities. Dumont’s film is disturbing and convention defying; you either embrace or reject it.


Pharaon seemed a more likely candidate to kill than Joseph because we suppose his needs are unfulfilled. Domino strings Pharaon along out of a mix of pity and need. She refuses to give him what he wants, or at least what she believes he wants, but she’s always with him. It’s a no win situation for Pharaon because she can’t/won’t satisfy him and that hurts him tremendously, leaving him alternating between semifilled and unfulfilled need.

Joseph being declared guilty is ironic because we’ve seen through the eyes of Pharaon. Joseph has been in the enviable position the entire film; he has the one person that interests Pharaon, and by seeing through his eyes (which never even cast their gaze on any other option) ours. If we believe he’s guilty it’s not for an unfulfilled need, at least not the need we suppose he has considering his dick might be ready to fall off. Joseph seems to try to feel through anger, perhaps an unwilling participant brings the violence and disgust out of him that much more, or he just hoped it would? Dumont is certainly a pessimist portraying man as a weak creature who gives in to bosses demands, sex, rape, and violence. He certainly doesn’t seem to believe that people are just and moral. His opinion is more along the lines of men are brutal, selfish animals whose desires and shortcomings leave them in a fragile and desperate emotional state where they are vulnerable to others and prone to doing whatever comes to mind in an often desperate attempt to fill their void.



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