As the final season of AMC’s Mad Men is about to begin, we are once again reminded of the remarkable legacy for which that program, along with the network’s Breaking Bad, HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire, can claim credit: long America’s most popular consumer art form, television is now also its widely discussed among taste-makers. This former mass medium is now its dinner party art as well – with canons that only occasionally overlap (as with the extraordinary success of Game of Thrones).
An even newer development, as in within the past year or two at the most, has been the emergence of director rather than writer or show-runner-centered television programs (with Top of the Lake and The Knick being two very notable examples), not that we didn’t already experience something like this twenty-five years ago with David Lynch’s eternally bizarre and pleasurable Twin Peaks – in addition to even earlier small-screen European masterworks Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fanny and Alexander and The Decalogue. To the extent that cinema has been and continues to be understood as a director’s medium at its core, a spatial and temporal art that introduces (and/or organizes) a unique authorial vision, this latest stage in television’s evolution, one that is being powered by festival-circuit (Jane Campion) and even mainstream (Steven Soderbergh) filmmakers, signals its further blurring with theatrical cinema.
Enter Bruno Dumont and his Li’l Quinquin (P’tit Quinquin, 2014), which screens in its entirety Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Produced for and aired on French television last year, the French auteur’s four-part mini-series is, pound-for-pound, the equal of anything made for the small-screen in the United States during this most recent “new golden age of television.” It is a work of absolute authorial vision and visual storytelling mastery, from a director who, somewhat quietly, provocateur though he is, has been settling nicely into the role of mid-career master over the course of about the last half decade. A two-time Cannes Grand Jury prize winner before the age of fifty, Li’l Quinquin may well represent the best cinema of the director’s career – and will surely rank among my own top choices for 2015. In fact, legendary French movie magazine Cahiers du cinéma, which as it happens has done more to promote the idea that film is a director’s medium than any other publication, recently named Li’l Quinquin the best “film” of 2014; this was the first time in the magazine’s more than sixty years of existence that a television series was listed on top. Television most certainly has arrived, if any doubt still remained.
Li’l Quinquin unfolds in a rural French backwater, situated on the country’s northern English Channel coastline. In the first of its four parts, titled “The human beast,” Dumont initially introduces us to a pair of pre-pubescent children who will remain focal points throughout the mini-series, the eponymous and charismatic Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), and his frequent companion and childhood love interest, Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron). The director’s gliding camera depicts the pair as they cross over the flat coastal landscape, spotting a helicopter that suggests a break from the village’s small-town monotony. Their discovery leads them to witness the spectacle of a cow being airlifted from a bunker. A subsequent autopsy of the dead animal reveals the punning source (beyond naturalist writer Émile Zola) for part one’s appellation: a series of body parts are discovered inside the cow. As the film’s twitching police investigator Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) notes upon discovering the gruesome crime – ‘the human beast’ indeed – “We’re at the heart of evil” here in the work’s provincial nowhere.
As grim as the film’s commencing crime undoubtedly is – and I should add, it will prove only the first in a series of connected homicides – this is not to suggest that Li’l Quinquin punishes its audience with a mood to match. Rather, Dumont provides a masterclass in contradiction and tonal contrast throughout his four involving parts: the extreme violence of the crimes finds a bedfellow in frequent moments of levity and humor – many of which are a consequence of the film’s bumbling investigators; seriousness pairs with absurdity; and the sacred is brought into comic contact with the profane, especially in a first-part funeral passage that seems to confirm many a famous (and less than flattering) adage about small-town vicars. Once criticized for the bleakness of his worldview – as with 1999 Cannes prize-winner Humanité – Dumont, in Li’l Quinquin, has come to seize upon a rhetoric of comedic contradiction that nonetheless maintains his former outlook. “The Devil’s in our midst” – in the midst of kitschy pop music competitions, and poorly executed baton-twirling and tossing routines.
Man, or at least France’s darker side, appears likewise in the casual, deep-seated and shockingly intense racial animus that the local children show toward their community’s latest African and Middle Eastern immigrants, a racial hatred that will culminate in an acculturated crime that opens part four, entitled “Allah akbar!.” There, however, is a glimmer of humanity to go with the widespread inhumanity in Dumont’s masterpiece; the film might even be described alternatively, at least in one key scene featuring a comically belligerent handicapped patron, as an improbably effective marrying of the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary) and the extraordinary, if largely humorless Roman Catholic cinema of French master Robert Bresson (Au hasard Balthazar, The Devil, Probably). Indeed, in giving voice to, and more importantly, in allowing his numerous mentally and physically disabled performers to be every bit as poorly behaved – and potentially even as evil in their deeds – as the village’s non-handicapped residents, Dumont reveals the deeper integrity (and egality) of his worldview.
In closing, I would feel remiss were I not to address the film’s conclusion. Without spoiling the film’s resolution, suffice it to say simply that Li’l Quinquin ends as it must, not only in its depiction of a mysterious “devil” in rural France – Li’l Quinquin very successfully conceals the killer’s identity, created a large measure of suspense – but also as festival-circuit European art cinema that now appears poised to begin its migration to the long-form, audio-visual medium of the moment.