Humanité

An intensely studied, Bressonian religious allegory disguised as a numbingly deliberate police procedural, Bruno Dumont's Humanité was controversial at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where David Cronenberg's jury gave it an unprecedented three major awards, including runner-up to Palme D'Or winner Rosetta. A few vocal critics, primarily Americans, felt it epitomized the sort of pretentious, impenetrable European art film that had lost all relevance. (The same argument was made the year before, again wrongly, when Theo Angelopoulos' Eternity And A Day won the Palme.) While the jury's decision to give acting awards to blank non-professionals Emmanuel Schotté and Séverine Caneele does border on the perverse, Humanité is a strange, unsettling, profound meditation on the existence of evil. Slow-witted and hunched over, with an inscrutable face and big, hollow eyes, Schotté is a compelling screen presence, capable of suggesting compassion and cold-bloodedness with the same expression. Set in a small seaside village in northeastern France, made hauntingly remote by the vast Cinemascope frame, the moral dilemma begins when an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered in the countryside. Schotté, more idiot than idiot savant, is the police detective assigned to the case, and he's so affected by the unspeakable crime that his own innocence is subtly called into question. Reluctant to do the task at hand—nearly 40 minutes of screen time pass between the discovery of the body and the beginning of his investigation—Schotté hangs out with his brusque next-door neighbor (Caneele) and her obnoxious boyfriend (Philippe Tullier). His attraction to Caneele and her explicitly carnal relationship with Tullier lends a disturbing undertone to Humanité, which is ultimately concerned with nothing less than the meaning of capital-E existence. At times, Dumont's ambitious allegories get the better of him, particularly during a ridiculous sequence in which Schotté actually levitates above a field. But his slow, deliberate human epic rewards the patient, building to an unforgettable final shot that condenses the entire film to a single poignant image.

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