Coincoin et les z'inhumaines (2018) by Bruno Dumont
Review from Festival du Nouveau Cinéma at Montreal by Clément Hosseart
Bruno Dumont is a goofy, aloof, philosophical and wholly singular voice in French cinema right now, and he wields it with more things on his mind than before. The director of Ma Loute, Camille Claudel 1945, Jesus Life, to name a few, has set his cameras in the North of France, his home region – and mine – to deliver what could be described as a Pasolinian reverie, enshrined in the sand and the dialect of the region. This is the second season of P’tit Quin-Quin one of the weirdest TV shows from France, one with such a specific wavelength it’s actually weird to see it fare this well beyond our land, let alone its very peculiar and idiosyncratic region of origin. To be able to watch it on the other side of the Atlantic, during an International Cinema festival is truly a moment of uncanny clarity about the fact even the weirdest stories can find resonance with a crowd that have never stepped a foot on its rainy, ocher and fern rectangles of harvest lands.
If their laughter is any indication, season two of Coin-Coin and the Inhumans still had the childish, derisive and awkward universal appeal of the first.
For those unfamiliar with the first season, here’s a brief recap that won’t spoil anything, should you chose to find and binge season one – as you should. In a small village in the north of France — not far from the Northern seaside — there’s a weird kid with a harelip that runs around everywhere, a weird gendarmerie commandant Van der Weyden plagued with all sorts of nervous facial tics and mismatched colloquialisms, his lieutenant Carpentier who tries to correct as many poorly phrased sentences as he can, and a bunch of Coen-esque “funny lookin’ “villagers living their lives while someone kills people and stuff them into cattle.
Hijinks ensue. Now go watch it as soon as possible.
Season one lured some of his viewers with a pastiche of procedurals, where the detective and his partner are your average local cops. Like Broadchurch, but with less of a Scottish accent, and with more cows. Season two mixes things up with some of the most literally down to earth science-fiction you will find. Some black goo is falling from the sky. It’s been determined that it’s not human, because it’s not human or animal, so It’s definitely not human, Van Der Weyden says. So we might have an extraterrestrial invasion on ours hands, mon commandant.
In conjuring easily recognizable iconography from your grandparents sci-fi, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) , Bruno Dumont once again offers a template he’s only too happy to subvert and detract. Early in the show, he puts his characters in situations they are clearly not ready to deal with and makes the most of their idiosyncrasies, while revealing some of the dark corners of the Ch’ti and the Flemish citizens France. Bruno Dumont’s writing is a quilt of colloquialism, a naturalistic combination of French and dialect, presented with a situation it tries to describe but can’t. Words fail the villagers and the police, and that’s the whole point, when words don’t fail, it sounds a bit like this:
The world is upside downside, because we got these black refugees, alien walking around everywhere, and also a bunch of people wearing weird wigs and costumes, but those are the good kind of funny lookin’ folks because they are white like us, and they’re here for the carnival, which is NOT weird, because it’s… you know… “from here”. Also, this pesky Coin-Coin kid, his girlfriend is now a dyke, apparently? It’s the modern world! He’s driving a homemade roofless car without a license, which is against the law, not like when Carpentier does his stunts, which are funny, but sometimes we end upside down and it makes quite the raucous, and breaks our rotation beacon. It’s good we have four of those.
In changing genres between two seasons, while retaining the bulk of what makes this series so clever, Dumont sheds a new light on characters we thought we knew and could be comfortable with. Viewers who liked season one may find themselves disappointed in discovering that Van der Weyden is just a good ole racist uncle, and that Coin-Coin participates in the unlawful demonstrations of the far right political party called “The Bloc.”
Dumont uses long form storytelling to gripping ends, showing us what was probably lurking beneath this whole time is an experience very similar to hearing one of your friends voice their political opinion for the first time and finding out they lack an utter sense of understanding of what’s going on, to put it mildly. Surely, 2018 America can relate. The director knows how sci-fi can echo these concerns, and exemplify this uncanny feeling when the character you knew becomes something you did not expect. As the first episode ends, we discover that the black muck (or “brun” if you use the quite specific term associated with “shit” in our region) turns into a white light that hits people who give birth to a twin, with a perfectly farcical sound of a balloon being deflated as the new body is expulsed. What do these weird folks that look like us but aren’t us want, is the question on everybody’s lips.
All of this plays like an out of whack Tintin in the country of coal and potato, with the specificity that all characters are played by non-professional performers. Some of them, including Van der Weyden get their lines fed to them through an earpiece. The result brings this closer to a pasolinian experiment in his Notes Towards an African Orestes when he pointed his camera at random in different African countries, branding people Orestes and Clytemnestra and Electra. Dumont did something analogous in Jeannette and the first season of Quin-Quin, putting stories in places, and letting them interact with a foreign yet real dialect.
Here, Dumont brings this auteur convention of acting to its logical extreme. During some scenes, most notably with two priests and the forensic analyst, Dumont lets the camera roll for a long time, leaving actors repeating entire chunks of dialogues, in automated prompts and responses, going in and out of their characters, amazed, perplexed and laughing, as does the audience, with them and of them. It comes to a point where the show defies labels, between uproarious couleur locale and anthropological cinema. It comes to a point where the prosecutor becomes the least believable actor in the show, because he seems to actually have a sense of what he’s saying. Ultimately, all the actors and extra are having a mighty good time, even when they don’t really know what’s going on, and why they are saying those incredible things to each other.
The viewer feels swept up by a sense of unnatural, yet real entanglement of fiction and reality, as we get the sense that everyone’s using their own dialect in a way that’s not natural to them yet is the obvious day-for-night technique used throughout. The fact that we never get to see the inside of a house, as if the real life locations were sets with entrances and exists. All of this brings an air of child's play, only broken by the reality of the actual refugee camp where part of the action takes place.
It’s all a carnival show, where adults get to pretend, while slowly, unknowingly disclosing part of what make them terrible and lost, existentially.
This gets even better when Dumont does something that shouldn’t be working as well as it does: crafting Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin moments for his cast, as Van der Weyden’s facial hair already suggested the kinship with the Tramp, and giving slapstick bits to actors that have never done physical comedy before. The results are maybe even funnier than they could be with professional actors, because of all this is brought home by the joy of adult children throwing themselves at walls, tearing up a car, and rolling on the ground, a gun in their hand, running around and driving at dangerous speeds.
This seaside Fargo might give the lingering feeling that any actors entering the shot, is being framed by Dumont, puppeteered to do his bidding, use his words, bring forth his point, in a free indirect speech that apes, contorts, play with, and detracts northern dialect in its poetic slurring and confused beauty. When he showed the first season to a panel, Dumont famously told them “It’s okay to laugh”. The question being, whether Dumont has consciously broken the empathy machine along the way or if his own bitterness is coming through. Maybe that is why the uneasiness gets through when Van der Weyden makes a black-face joke and we understand that Dumont is, understandably, tired with his fellow countrymen that are easily swayed by racist propaganda and nationalists talking points. Like anywhere else. The actors seem to trust the director so completely, that the audience can be left wondered what those grotesque ragdolls made human beings are to do in all this chaos. What about those doubles that look more human than the others? They find themselves living their lives, going to the beach trying happy polyamorous relationships. Is there going to be a twist? Will Coin-coin learn that helping the far-right isn’t the solution? Is there ending to this mysterious chaos?
Truth is, all of this is so goddamn weird, the aliens probably just want to take part in the big carnival and its danse macabre, with all the good and the bad.