Director: Bruno Dumont
Cast: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost
Watch P’tit Quinquin online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Google Play
Originally released in its native France as a four-part miniseries but put into cinemas in the UK as an uncut 200-minute film, Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin is almost too bizarre to describe. It’s like Spike Milligan rewrote Broadchurch and spliced it into a Ken Loach-esque social realist drama, cast unknown amateurs in all the main roles and then got them to read all their dialogue in a thick Picardy dialect. It’s a quite extraordinary pitch-black farce, and while you may end up scratching your head raw by the time the credits roll, you will rarely be bored.
As the movie opens, a dead cow is discovered in an abandoned WWII bunker with human body parts stuffed into its stomach. A pair of bumbling local cops are put on the case, which quickly becomes nigh-on impossible to follow as more and more bodies begin to pile up.
Anyone expecting a new French crime drama in the style of Spiral will probably be disappointed. For much of its runtime, the gruesome murders feel almost like an afterthought, as Dumont instead chooses to focus on the colourful characters and the beautifully shot rural French countryside, compared with which a city like Paris might as well be on a different planet altogether.
The film’s name comes from the Dennis the Menace figure played by 12 year-old Alane Delhaye, but the real star of the movie is Captain Van der Weyden. As played by Bernard Pruvost (a gardener by trade with no formal acting experience), Van der Weyden is a fascinating comic figure – one part Columbo to two parts Jacques Clouseau. His myriad of facial tics and laconic drawl are constantly played for laughs, but there’s something kind of tragic about watching him struggle against the horrific acts that keep cropping up on his doorstep.
One might think that by having Quinquin and his chums turn up at every scene like the Bash Street Kids, Dumont is making a tragic story about the inevitable loss of innocence that comes with growing up. In a village where everyone is seemingly having affairs with everyone else, Quinquin’s clumsy relationship with his young girlfriend Eve (Lucy Caron) is by far the most tender. But Quinquin is far from innocent himself. Even forgetting the seemingly inexhaustible supply of firecrackers he keeps in his back pocket, he and his gang regularly terrorise the other villagers; shouting homophobic slurs at the local priest and hurling racist insults at a young black boy.
Still, while the film may go to some truly dark places it covers pretty much the entire spectrum of comedy, from gallows humour to slapstick that wouldn’t look out of place in Benny Hill. It doesn’t always work, and many of the extended sequences or pregnant pauses could have been trimmed down for a cinematic release, but waiting to see what insane thing will happen next becomes strangely compelling.
As a whodunit, P’tit Quinquin is something of a disappointment. As a darkly comic look at the fringes of modern French society, it’s frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.