American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Bruno Dumont is that French director your friends have warned you about. His characters pontificate about God, death, and evil between being violated and subjugated. He shoots through a lens filter called "abject Gallic misery." Christ-figures abound and they're mortified enough for three crucifixions. He's been mixing Tod Browning, Catherine Breillat and Carl th. Dreyer for over fifteen years and until recently he had but two settings: beautifully troubling and unbearably bleak. It seems however, he's emptied the suggestion box and realized that perhaps he'd gone as far as his obsessions could carry him in his chosen mode. Maybe seven films without a single laugh was a little much? Well, fear Dumont's unsettling vision of humanity no more: he's trawled through his back catalogue (which includes the punishing "Twentynine Palms," the transcendent "Hadewijch," and the abstruse "Hors Satan") and put together a hilarious remix of his greatest hits in the form of a joyfully bizarre 3-hour miniseries. Saying "P'tit Quinquin" is Dumont's funniest and warmest film doesn't count for much, but could I interest you in one of the sharpest autocritiques in recent memory? Dumont's real trick isn't spinning his iconic imagery for laughs, but doing so without straying from his usual mission of investigating the extent to which humans can possibly be modeled after God in the most violent imaginable terms. That's having your cake and eating it in ways Lars Von Trier could only dream of.
"P'tit Quinquin" begins like the prequel to "Hors Satan" no one in their right mind would ask for, with a young boy (Alane Delhaye, the Quinquin of the title) trying to impress a girl (Lucy Caron) by killing a mouse on a sprawling farm. They make their way to the edge of the property in time to see a murder investigation begin. The body of a woman has been found stuffed inside a dead cow, her head nowhere to be found. The Commandant in charge of the investigation (Bernard Pruvost) notices Quinquin and his friends lurking near the crime scene and makes it his personal mission to bug the angry little kid every chance he gets. The investigation bobs and weaves between the poorest farmer and the highest official in town and Quinquin always seems to be right around the corner whenever a lead is confronted. But for all his proximity to the unfolding case, Quinquin's world is only ever as big as his pride and racism allow it to be. His chief concern is making his girlfriend feel safer as life keeps throwing them curveballs. Normality crumbles a little more with each new murder and neither Quinquin nor Pruvost's investigator have a terribly tight grip on their wits.
"P'tit Quinquin" is Dumont's most nakedly referential work. From the opening shot of a Helicopter carrying a cow, a sacrilegious inversion of "La Dolce Vita"'s famous shot of Jesus flying over Rome, to the Kaurismakian musical interludes, Dumont seems to be letting conventional work into his mise-en-scene so that those film's generosity of spirit might help bring the sunshine and smiles out of the poker-faced auteur. As if to prove his willingness to be merry, he replays images from his earlier work: three chubby pale boys taking to the surf in their tight bathing suits and later pursuing a boy through a field yelling racial epithets are both taken from his bracing debut "La Vie De Jesus." The mentally ill supporting characters from "Camille Claudel 1915" take on vibrant, poignant new life here. The motif of a boy and a girl sharing a bike ride has cropped in half of his movies, and the landscape he's so fond of remains as mockingly picturesque and forbidding as it always has. Dumont's attitude toward religion is the same old disaffected prostration it's always been. As someone in the film says "Let's split. The Devil Lives Here." The only thing missing is the gratuitous, ugly sex! Maybe Dumont lost interest in the provocative imagery that scarred up his early films or maybe he's said all he can, but the work doesn't miss his usual grotesque intimacy or hideous violence. A film that walks a tonal tightrope this fine could so easily tip over into vulgarity, but Dumont miraculously never once loses his footing.
Dumont's approach to death is one of the more unique in modern cinema. His character's unwavering focus on death means that if/when they finally die it feels like we've just been waiting for them to kick the bucket, which perhaps explains why, when victim after victim is claimed by the murderer, it still never feels as though there's a genuine threat lurking nearby. The casual attitude toward death has the curious effect of preserving the emotional continuity of each character's journey while creating a breezy space where each comic setpieces can exist without interference from reality. The first clue that we're in new territory comes during the funeral for the first victim, which starts with a priest fussing over his aid's cassock for a small, hilarious eternity. Alterboy Quinquin refuses to complete one his rituals, forcing the priest into a kind of fitful dance waiting for him to finish, and those are just the most obvious moments. At the risk of hyperbole, it's got to be among the two or three most comical funerals in motion picture history.