French filmmaker Bruno Dumont is a director strongly associated with serious, spiritual, and metaphysical European arthouse. What a surprise it was, then, when his latest project was announced as not only being a first foray into the world of long-form television, but a comedy to boot. The result is the four part mini-series, P’tit Quinquin (2014), which premièred on French television last year and is now released in its entirety as a singular work on DVD courtesy of New Wave Films.
Set in a coastal town in the Boulonnais, recognisably Dumont to regulars, it is a wonderfully strange and wickedly humorous tale involving a meandering murder investigation. “You will cause me grief/If you don’t sleep until tomorrow.” These are the closing words of the 19th century Picard lullaby written by Alexandre Desrousseaux, from which the film’s title and nickname of the protagonist originate. Quinquin certainly takes the lyrics to heart, a young tearaway who is “always making trouble” according to his parents.
Quinquin is a fantastic comic creation, played brilliantly by non-professional actor Alane Delhaye. He’s spunky and a lot of fun, particularly in the juxtaposition between his tough leader-of-the-gang act and a tenderly observed puppy love with the neighbour’s daughter, Eve (Lucy Caron). Weaving in and out of Quinquin’s story is local detective Captain Van Der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), who raises a smile with his eternally confused demeanour and a range of Herbert Lom-style facial ticks that appear as though he’s constantly trying to stave off sleep. Not only does P’tit Quinquin’s procedural strand evoke countless laughs both macabre – the body that incites the story is found chopped up inside a cow – and slapstick, but also provides the context for the exploration of deeper themes more prevalent in Dumont’s earlier works.
The pivotal mystery never really takes centre stage, as Dumont is more interested in the unsettling milieu of this apathetic town. Dumont also stays true to form with his cast, using amateur actors throughout the film including several that either suffer from disabilities or manage to convince that they do startlingly well. In some instances, afflictions are played for laughs, but the attitudes towards disability are clearly something that is being questioned – particularly when one young man is appears to be fingered as the prime suspect. Dumont has spoken about his attraction to comedy as exaggeration and how that itself inclines towards its own absurd deformity. The farcical P’tit Quinquin is a peculiar marriage of both.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson