TSPDT 996-998: L'humanite (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

TSPDT 996-998: L’humanite (1999)

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I'm going through the list of all the films I have not seen on They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is from the bottom of the list, Bruno Dumont's 1999 drama L'humanité.

996. Dead Poets Society (Indifference) - As there are only two films in this slot that I have seen and I'm indifferent to both there is no "favorite" pick.  Though, if I had to choose, I would take the uberschmaltz of Dead Poets Society over "Woody Allen does a thing".  Robin Williams and director Peter Weir have both done much better films, and neither is well suited to the sentimental heart of John Seale's screenplay.  There's no zest, just aimless emotion forced into a plot that the film feels too lackadaisical to address.

997. Husbands and Wives (Indifference) - Woody Allen made Annie Hall, a great film I now have an extremely complicated relationship with.  Allen then went on to remake Annie Hall several times, sometimes in black and white and other times a humorless slog, until present day. This is the documentary-ish one, better done in When Harry Met Sally... and best left in the dustbin today.

998. L'humanité -

Bruno Dumont's L'humanité opens on a series of long shots.  A small figure travels quickly over the horizon, then into view but jogs away from the camera, and it's only when the figure collapses that the camera is able to catch up.  So I watch, in the first of many unbroken shots of Pharaon's gaze, Emmanuel Schotté communicating something with his eyes that's not quite distant but struggling to be free of this moment.

L'humanité isn't about the crime, but the void it leaves within Pharaon that slowly begins to infect those around him.  The wide shots and sterile framing go hand-in-hand with Pharaon's post-traumatic state.  It starts overwhelming, then unnerving, to a final act where I felt like I needed to be anxious on L'humanité's because Dumont pushes Pharaon's traumatized state far beyond what most directors are capable of.

Pharaon is present. Painfully present. He saw the body of an 11-year old girl after a rapist murdered her.  Pharaon ran as his flesh screamed and his mind and heart seem to be working in opposite directions.  He has to focus on this case, but seeing the corpse of that girl broke something inside of him, and Dumont returns time and again to the image of Pharaon staring - almost like he's waiting for someone to tell him what to feel or what to do.  When he goes to an art gallery he looks like he'd want nothing else but to become part of the painting and never have to worry about how others shift in his presence ever again.

It's not a stretch to say L'humanité wouldn't work without Schotté's performance.  His eyes are impossibly wide, inviting the viewer to search for emotion in his expressions while hinting that they'll find nothing but emptiness. If Pharaon is capable of feeling anything at all it won't be found in those eyes, nor his touch where even his hugs look like he's trying to keep a wall between him and the other person.  Even when Pharaon breaks into a scream Schotté manages to keep Pharaon's voice at a distance.  It's a hollow pathetic thing to hear, stopped only by Pharaon's collision with a chain-link fence.  Whatever naked existential dread Schotté tapped into also took him out of performing after L'humanité, putting him alongside Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the pantheon of great silent performances.

Dumont took a few heavy risks with L'humanité, trusting the silence of Schotté and amazing sound design.  Pharaon can't put his dread into words but that doesn't stop the rest of the world from creaking along to the inevitable. L'humanité sounds coarse, scraping and dragging itself from scene to scene where doors groan in protest at being opened by Pharaon.  The biggest risk involves the crime itself, which takes place off-screen, but Dumont shows the aftermath of in wrenching close-up of the victim's vagina.

Obviously, this is not the body of an 11-year old girl, but the closeup of her preadolescent body violated and crawling with insects lingers just long enough to put us into Pharaon's headspace.  It could have been an exploitative moment, yet Dumont avoids this by first setting up the coarse sound design and vast empty frames before that shocking cut to the victim.  I already felt small in Pharaon's world, the universe distant and uncaring, so finding a dead girl in the middle of it only grounds me in trauma and that's not a state I can abide by for long.Schotté earns the largest share of credit for L'humanité's success but he's aided by other performers who inhabit characters unable to make sense of the crime.  The most tragic is Domino (Séverine Caneele), who gets caught up in Pharaon's emotional void and begins to see herself as helpless as the victim.  Caneele's performance is tricky, as she's just strong-willed enough to offer help but can sink to depths of raw frustration at the fulfillment sex used to give her.  Then there's Pharaon's superior, played by Ghislain Ghesquère, who exhibits all the outward signs of stress that Pharaon suppresses.  It's almost as if Pharaon looks down on him, perspiring through his shirt and unable to push the investigation forward, while Pharaon himself is unable to do anything but observe.

Even with all that numbing depression and dread in advance, L'humanité's climax stunned me.  Pharaon has so many opportunities to show compassion and love to those who need it but waits so long to waste it on the one person who least deserves it.  L'humanité might be a prayer, and this might be Pharaon's attempt to follow in the example of a savior who isn't there.  In the end it's all one sickening smack of flesh against another, trapped for all time in the only place we'll know.

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L'humanité (1999)

Screenplay written and directed by Bruno Dumont.
Starring Emmanuel Schotté.

Posted by Andrew

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