by Nic Ho Chee
Originally a four part TV Series by French director, Bruno Dumont, P’tit Quinquin has been recut into a movie to be released through New Wave Films on the 28th of September on DVD and Video On Demand.
The eponymous protagonist is the pre-pubescent son of a farmer living in a small coastal town somewhere near Boulogne-sur-Mere in the north of France. The film opens at the start of an eventful summer holiday season, which finds Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) and a group of friends playing with firecrackers in the silt of an empty beach on the Cote d’Opale. A black helicopter intrudes on their merriment, and being a singularly interesting incident, the gang decide to follow it to a World War 2 era bunker where it was tasked to retrieve a dead cow from the inky depths of a concrete fortification. This bovine beast’s backside contains the partial remains of an unfortunate neighbour of Quinquin’s and marks the start of a series of gruesome deaths which Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his colleague, Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) must investigate. The story follows the chaotic dance between the village, the Gendarmerie’s case, Quinquin, his young girlfriend Eve (Lucy Caron) and his gang over the days that follow.
Cited as both a crime-drama and comedy, experiencing this left me feeling like neither of these labels fit what I’d seen. In terms of modern French comparisons, this isn’t a crime-drama along the same lines as Engrenages (Spiral) or Braquo. It is too slow and ponderous, moving at a villager’s pacing more suited to capturing crepuscular rays moving across the countryside than a criminal’s urgent flight through a crumbling concrete banlieue. The slightly demented antics of der Weyden with his facial tics and strange bumbling, counterpointed by the relatively straight Carpentier, could remind one of Clouseau and Hercule. Der Weyden falls from walls, uses his sidearm to rouse people when doorbells don’t suffice, and incompetently interviews possible suspects but the framing and timing don’t suggest a Pink Panther parallel. What does seem obvious is that we won’t see a competent resolution to the story and his comportment makes for interesting but cringe worthy viewing. Away from the officers, the levity where it exists comes with it a frisson of uncomfortable-ness, as we see for example, Quinquin’s irresponsible signalling for a priest and deacon to kneel during a funeral mass or Carpentier unfortunately responding to an English family and their disabled ward acting out in a restaurant. The film consistently announces itself as something else other than caper filled.
As the story unfolds, it looks like the movie could have better passed muster as a meta-physical coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of an ongoing criminal investigation. The director shows Quinquin and the gang “warts-and-all,” as a bunch of stoic, engaging, funny but also as small minded racist kids who are a product of their environment. They are shown playing at fighting, and perhaps not fully aware of the effect their flung epithets have, but whilst we see them deal with love and death, we don’t see them grow to understand the partial responsibility they might bear for some of what occurs in their village. As grounded as the picture is, there are elements of the unreal and mystical peppered throughout, with the improbable, and in a couple of places impossible, occurrences missed by the characters. As the forensic analysis continues, we also begin to better understand der Weyden’s tics as indicative of him running through permutations of who did what to whom like some vacillating human Schrodinger’s box as he makes his way to solving the case.
The framing and cinematography are spectacular for what was originally a TV series. Dumont has spent a lot of energy in ensuring that every frame captured is a still picture in it’s own right. What could have been painted as character studies with a brief wash of scenery instead becomes a brilliant composition of foreground and background in which an unnamed village and surrounding countryside close to Boulogne-sur-Mere somehow morph into another agent in the piece. The scene arrangement lends a feeling of sparseness to the proceedings and an impermanence to the characters which conversely suggests that the land abides like some antediluvian figure through whatever changes are wrought to it. Whether that land is green and pleasant or has notes of Chuck Jones and Wile E Coyote remains to be discussed at some later date.
The actors are often given a discrete space to play in, which then allows them to be used as compositional elements for particularly beautiful shots. For example there is a scene where der Weyden and Carpentier are waiting for an autopsy, which has:
1. Carpentier’s torso in the immediate foreground.
2. The blue Citroen C4 police car behind him.
3. Commandant der Weyden obscured by the car.
4. A white concrete ground-plane stretching off behind der Weyden.
5. A band of darker asphalt parallel to the police car bounding the concrete.
6. The asphalt terminated by a grey concrete fence, which again runs parallel to the car.
7. A layer of trees behind the fence with leaves that look like they could scavenge every last mote of light from the sun.
8. In the far distance patches of blue sky showing through the trees.
9. Been framed by a camera set at a jaunty angle.
The elements in combination create a powerful image, which lingers with the viewer for some time on the screen, and will continue lingering in this viewer’s mind’s eye for some time hence.
This film and the series that it was edited from are both excellent, but as good as they are, they won’t be for everyone. This is not Engrenages, 24, or The Wire. If you are a fan of amazing cinematography, interesting stories that work on many levels, engaging and visually distinctive casts, and can tolerate films that run at a much slower pace, then I highly recommend P’tit Quinquin for you.