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Humanity (L' Humanité, dir. Bruno Dumont, France, 1999)
Brisbane International Film Festival. Reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield
A dot of a figure emerges from between some tiny trees at the left of screen and walks across a long ridge to the right of frame in the opening wide-angled shot of Humanity. This figure turns out to be a man who collapses in a muddy paddock. He's a police officer who's visibly upset. Suddenly we see what he's discovered: a still shot (of considerable duration) reveals a clump of long grass containing a lifeless female body, only the lower half of which can be seen. The legs are spread and blood has oozed from the ravaged vagina. Soon it will be revealed that this is the body of Nadège, an elevenyear-old schoolgirl who has been brutally raped and murdered by an unknown man; her body left in this grassland on the outskirts of the country town where she lived. The story of Humanity thus ostensibly follows the local police officer's search for her rapist and killer, but the subtext is much deeper.
Surprisingly, this police officer, Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), who walks and talks like a sort of slow (but not dull)-witted village idiot, serves as the local police superintendent. He lives with his mother, and once had a girlfriend and baby that died, although the circumstances of their deaths are undisclosed. Pharaon is attracted by his neighbour, Domino (Séverine Caneele), a tall, broad, big-boned lass who works on an assembly line in a local factory. This attraction is reciprocated and the flirting between the two flourishes much to the chagrin of Domino's boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier), an athletic-and-angry young man who is one of the drivers of the schoolbus from which Nadège alighted just before she disappeared. . .
Despite their differences and suspicions about each other, Pharaon, Domino and Joseph dine out together and take a trip to the sea, even though the macho Joseph typically spoils these occasions by loudly losing his temper. This trio sweat, dry retch, urinate, leer, cry, eat, drink, hunger, and lust after each other, but they never laugh in happiness. Domino and Joseph don't make love but fuck each other hard and coarsely during non-affectionate embraces. One day, Pharaon wanders into Domino's flat and watches voyeuristically as Joseph's bottom grinds between her legs. Yet Pharaon -- who seems irreconcilably distressed by male violence toward females -- seeks emotional solace through physical interactions with other men. Firstly, there's a gay-acting worker in a mental hospital into whose arms he walks, and later there's two criminals, each of which he unexpectedly kisses after strangely sniffing round their faces (thus evoking the sort of intimacies detailed in the écriture of Jean Genet).
In the discussion after the film, Dumont (through his interpreter) explained that he aimed to express "inner landscapes" in his Humanity. He has achieved this wish particularly by inter-dispersing broad shots of the countryside around the Northern French town with lingering close-ups of Pharaon's face. These extended shots of Pharaon's unmoving and expressionless (but not emotionally unmoved) visage become almost unbearingly long silences in which the viewer is forced to contemplate his memories of Nadège's wounded body, and what he imagines that she must have suffered, and by extension the very trauma that Nadège herself experienced up to her death. A poignant scene occurs in an art gallery where Pharaon becomes transfixed by an idyllic painting which shows a young girl sitting blissfully under a tree on a beautiful sunny day.
Dumont strengthens his theme about the horror of misogynist sexual crimes by cleverly re-constructing replicas of two French modernist artworks for the screen and by utilising these images for crucial narrative effect. The re-modelled works are Gustave Courbet's oil painting, "L'origine du monde" (1866) and Marcel Duchamp's surrealist tableau, "Étant Donnés" (1946-66). Each work depicts the lower spread-legged torso of a female figure with the exposed vulva positioned near the centre of frame. As such, these "master" painters have cropped and stripped each female body of any distinguishing public (facial or digital) features that might have equipped her with some personality or humanity rather than reducing her flesh to a hole. Most remarkably, Dumont re-presents these images through filmic reproductions of the vulvas of his two most important female characters: Nadège and Domino.
Courbet painted his realistic close-up image of an adult vulva when the new technology of photography was first being harnessed as a tool in the production of pornography, and his painting resembles an early pornographic postcard, if only rendered to reinforce a belief in the importance of the genre and discipline of realist painting. Dumont de-constructs and re-constructs this imagery through a full-screen shot which pauses in close-up on Domino's inner thighs and vagina. The contemporary cinematic viewer is thus confronted with an image resembling that witnessed by the attendants at the nineteenth century salon where Courbet's painting of a vulva was shown. Except that Dumont's version of The Origin of the World is a "real" shot of a vagina (to the extent that any filmic representation can be "real") that is accompanied by the murmur of Domino sobbing, thus suggesting a kind of vagina dentata. However, Domino's personality is so apparent in Humanity that she cannot simply be personified by her hairy vulva -- it is only one part of her. Dumont's candid shot of his female lead's private parts enlarges her character, and makes her whole.
Duchamp's "Étant Donnés" features a dark landscape supporting a white, hairless, plastic, lifeless, fetishised lower torso of a human female with a grotesque hole between its legs. This tableau is re-configured in Humanity in the early shocking scene where Nadège's body is suddenly seen for the first and only time. However, unlike Duchamp's impossible image of woman, Dumont's realistic screen representation of Nadège's murdered body comes with an exposed bloody proportionate vagina. Moreover, this unforgettable visualisation gives recognition to Nadège's burgeoning (but never achieved) womanhood, and provides a portrayal of her wounding that defies abstraction. And the entire plot and sensibility of Dumont's fictitious Humanity is constructed in memory of Nadège's tragic demise. As such, the confronting graphic imagery of her wound operates as a powerful symbol that challenges the viewer to face up to the cultural history in which the female has been mangled by the male.
The murdering and murdered persons are both humanised in a timely exploration of the reality behind certain crime statistics. However "animalistic" or "inhumane" the judgement of the killer's actions, he remains all too human, and therein lies the horror. Emmanuel Schotté and Séverine Caneele won best actor and actress awards at Cannes and the film took the Grand Jury Prize. Like the full-screen close-up of a birthing vagina in Catherine Breillat's Romance (also 1999) that celebrated the reproductive power of women, Dumont's remarkable images of Nadège's and Domino's pudenda dispel any charges of gratuitousness by taking central importance to any understanding of the film. Humanity is not a pretty picture, nor a short or easy story, but it should be seen, and -- following from Pharaon's example -- it should make every grown man cry.
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(C) 1998-2000 Gawain McLachlan
FILMNET DAILY 3.108 Friday August 4 2000
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2000 © Simon Astley Scholfield