In a small and mostly desolate, laid back French town, where seemingly nothing ever happens, an 11-year old girl is found brutally raped and murdered. The crime is unimaginably ghastly, the kind you would look away from. French filmmaker Bruno Dumont shows us the terrifying image of the brutalized body in considerable detail and for good reason too.
"L'humanité" (1999) is not about the mystery of the crime. It is in fact, about the psychological impact of witnessing something so inhuman, examined from one man's perspective, an awkward and socially inept police superintendent, Pharaon DeWinter (Emmanuel Schotté, in a hypnotic, tour de force act). A brilliant character study, the film explores the way this tragic event is received by Pharaon, a man visibly haunted by the gruesomeness of the crime, and its effect on his relationship with others around him, especially his next door neighbor Domino (Séverine Caneele).
Despite being a part of the investigating team, it is apparent from Pharaon's visage and body language that he possesses neither the attitude nor the energy that is essential to crack a case as dangerous as this. He is a very slow, soft, and mild-mannered fellow, a man-child, a weak nincompoop, with possibly some mental issues, and is clearly not fit for his position. The investigation doesn't seem to be moving as it should either. The attitude of the cops is as lackadaisical as the town they reside in. There are no leads. Help eventually has to be brought in from bigger cities.
While he is not on his rather unproductive pursuit of the killer, all that remains for Pharaon is to idle away, and tag along as a third wheel, with Domino and her vulgar boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier) on their excursions around town. When alone, the brooding, contemplative Pharaon seems to be immersed in some sort of deep personal connect with his surroundings, soaking in nature, meditating, or just reflecting with a palpable sadness. There is certainly much more to Pharaon's personality than what meets the eye; perhaps something beyond human understanding. And yet, Pharaon seems to be the only one with any shred of humanity that stands in sharp contrast against the abundant moral corruption around him.
Dumont's languid style with its moody atmosphere and long silences, allows the viewer to comfortably settle in and fixate his/her gaze on Pharaon as the screenplay follows his every move. The camera captures the vast, bleak emptiness of the sleepy town in all its glory. Every frame, no matter how banal, seems to hint at something that Pharaon reflects upon.
Dumont commands our attention and implores us to empathize with Pharaon, as he goes on with his strange activities, some bordering on the downright weird. For instance, Dumont begs the question: why is Pharaon so intently staring at his Superior's chubby pink neck with all its sweat? Is he likening it to something else? Maybe the pig that he so lovingly caresses?
It is interesting how frequently we see a frame that seems to resemble a vaginal slit, an image from the crime that has certainly scarred Pharaon's mind. He cycles, looks back at a long slender road, flanked by bushes and trees on both sides. He looks down a building and in top view, sees two men fighting in a narrow way between two similar constructions. He rejects Domino's sexual advances. He refuses to smell her panties that her ill-humoured boyfriend Joseph passes to him. Could Pharaon be a closeted homosexual or has the image of a brutalized vagina put a dent on his ability to look straight at a woman? Could it have corrupted his vision to an extent that the sight of a woman's genitals seems ugly and sickens him?
There is a gay kiss that comes out of nowhere. If one is to think that Pharaon was in fact taking pleasure in watching Joseph and not Domino, as they make love in an earlier scene, then it would connect. That would also explain Pharaon's approval of Joseph's churlish behavior in public. As it would the twist ending, hinting at an exchange deal of sorts or as a mark of some kind of a sick triumph. But then again, perhaps it is not that easy an answer as a corruption of sexuality.
At one point of time, amid some flower plantations in a garden, Pharaon appears to levitate. Perhaps the levitation is not literal and it is just a trickery device employed by Dumont to visually manifest Pharaon's ethereal feelings of being swept away in nature's bounty.
And then again, there is a possibility that Pharaon indeed did levitate, in which case one can't help but read Dumont's material on a more metaphysical level. Pharaon is some angelic being above humanity, a kind soul, out to correct the balance between good and evil. Pharaon is probably a godsend, a Christ-like entity, albeit not strictly adhering to the popular notion of Christ. He is one who exists as the epitome of kindness; one who will even take the fall for sin of others in the interest of humanity, a supreme sacrifice.
If one were to indeed adhere to the theory that Pharaon is not normal and far beyond ordinary, beyond humanity, then it could explain his touchy-feely ways with suspects brought in for questioning too. Just what exactly does he do with all that too-close-for-comfort sniffing and touching of the suspects' faces? Startling is also the fact that they don't seem to question it or express shock in return. Could Pharaon have the supernatural ability to recognize if a person is guilty by touching and smelling them? Is that how he is, at one point of time, convinced of a certain suspect's guilt? There is nothing explicit to corroborate this, but a mild suggestion is certainly there. But then again, perhaps it means nothing, and they are just some eccentric mannerisms of a mentally unstable cop.
And that is the essence of Dumont's cinematic craft. His magic lies in suspending the truth in this manner so as to not give easy answers. The restraint exercised is remarkable and it is no mean feat that he manages to open up a number of gates for possible interpretations to this enigmatic film in just the last ten minutes of the film! Everything is handled in a very delicate, calculated fashion; be it the sprinkling of humour in the right doses throughout the somber, melancholic atmosphere or maintaining an air of mystery throughout, ensuring that this film experience remains an intoxicating one, long after the credits roll by.