In his debut film, Life of Jesus (1997), writer-director Bruno Dumont focused on a group of young men loitering away a sun-baked summer in a small village in northern France. Ostensibly realistic, Dumont's style seemed indebted to a European cinematic tradition of poetic ennui, combining Bresson's deliberate pacing with Antonioni's vision of a dwarfing environment and early Pasolini's nonjudgmental depictions of low-life thuggery. It was an honorable addition to the genre, beautifully filmed, rigorously elusive and determinedly unsatisfying.
With his second feature, Humanité, Dumont has upped the metaphysical ante, leaving any pretense of realism far behind. Though it begins with a horrendous homicide and ends with an arrest, this is not, in any conventional sense, a murder mystery or even a police procedural. Set in the same provincial wilderness as his debut and acted by amateurs, Dumont's film enters the subjective reality of the grandly named Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotte), a detective investigating the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Or rather just barely investigating, since much of the 2½-hour film follows De Winter, who seems more equipped to be the village idiot than a policeman, as he lumbers through his tedious existence, riding his bicycle, working in his garden, or standing just outside the doorway of his home and staring blankly into the empty street.
De Winter's social life consists of a third-wheel relationship with the crudely erotic Domino (Séverine Caneele) and her boorish boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier). The couple are as animalistic as De Winter is ethereal and we're presented with several episodes of their energetic fucking, which looks to be about as enjoyable as a sweaty bout of bricklaying.
When De Winter accidentally walks in on one of their sessions, he watches transfixed as though he's stumbled onto some unyielding clue. But then this is his common reaction to fleshy intransigence, whether it be the blubbery neck of his immediate superior or Domino's splotchy hands. De Winter seems perpetually baffled by the physical presence of others and the way it can be the first manifestation of both evil and love — at one point he literally sniffs around the face of an arrested drug dealer, as though looking for some sensory answers that mere questioning won't yield.
Humanité is a difficult film in the sense that it makes unusual demands on the viewer. It's very slow, which is an easy way to be difficult, and there are times when its frustration of narrative seems perverse. But its taciturn "hero" eventually becomes a surprisingly moving figure and, if it's not quite the masterpiece Dumont seems to have wanted to make, it certainly points the way.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.