Michael Sicinski

DRAFT: do not circulate


An Incomplete Investigation: L’humanité


I. The Detective in the Mud

Bruno Dumont’s 1999 film L’humanité was one of the most controversial films released in the United States in 2001.  No film in recent memory, with the possible exception of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, has provoked statements so derogatory as to exceed the usual allowances for differences in personal taste.  Numerous high profile critics lambasted the film as a boring, meaningless, semi-coherent act of charlatanry.  In his 2000 year-end wrap-up, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman named L’humanité one of the year’s five worst films. Time Out New York’s Mike D’Angelo called it “so contemptuous of its audience that some folks have mistaken that contempt for integrity” (TONY #247).  But before L’humanité was even released in this country, it was being held up for ridicule as an example of the excesses and inscrutability of the 1999 Cannes film festival jury, led by David Cronenberg.  Within the film critical community, reactions to the Cronenberg jury’s decision to award L’humanité three major awards provoked a rancorous split, with Variety’s Todd McCarthy leading the charge against the supposed anti-American, anti-entertainment, anti-common sense elitists, and venerable leftist critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum staunchly defending the 1999 Cannes results.  In his subsequent review of L’humanité, Rosenbaum articulated the way in which the rage against Dumont’s film could be a case of confused or inappropriate expectation, a problem which will lead us directly into the heart of Deleuze’s diagnosis of cinema’s action crisis.


Last year a Cannes jury headed by David Cronenberg awarded L’humanité the grand

jury prize and awards for best actor (Emmanuel Schotté) and actress (Séverine Caneele,

in a tie with Rosetta’s Emilie Duquenne), and the international press was scandalized.

That both Schotté and Caneele were nonprofessionals contributed to the outrage, but other

issues relating to “professionalism” were also at play—above all, conformity to genre expect-

ations. The dramatic payoff in Dostoyevsky is hardly the same thing as the dramatic

payoff in a serial‑killer mystery, and anyone looking for the latter clearly felt cheated

(Rosenbaum 2000).


L’humanité can best be understood as an anti-policier, a film which adopts the outward trappings of the police procedural while at the same time confronting both its characters and its audience with the underlying nullity of those genre conventions.  But, unlike many recent excursions into postmodern, recombinant genre play, L’humanité is not primarily concerned with cinema history or the anxiety of influences.  That is, Dumont is not undercutting the policier in order to proleptically apologize for the genre’s long tradition, a shrug of the shoulders which announces, “it’s all been done.”  (And, of course, had this been the extent of Dumont’s project, L’humanité would doubtless have been received with greater warmth.)  Rather, L’humanité adopts the form of the police procedural precisely because it is a genre in which the ability of a human subject to act in a given situation is paramount.  Not only does the genre rely on posing a crime as a problem to solve, thereby jumpstarting the film’s narrative action.  Its presumed psychological connection to the viewing subject runs a bit deeper than mere conformity to genre expectation.  This desire to see formal conventions repeated is joined with the emotional charge of crime as a putting-out-of-joint of the social fabric, a terrifying disequilibrium.  (In this regard, the police procedural may be a form which thoroughly bourgeoisifies its audience, since its effectivity relies on producing a subject who is still, somehow, “shocked” by crime, rather than inured to it as a banal fact of life.)  So, the affect of the policier is a socially charged affect, in which the bald repetition of what Lacan would call “stagnant forms”[1] is grafted onto the reaffirmation that social disruptions, in the form of a “criminal element,” can be dealt with in a logical and effective manner.  (Note, this isn’t to say that all crimes must be solved in all procedurals; but most are, and those few which are not solved are like Roland Barthes’s “reality effect,”[2] in that they depart enough from the social script to guarantee authenticity.  Colloquially, this paradox is called “the exception which proves the rule.”)

In Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Deleuze charts two basic formulae for the arrangement of action in the cinema.  The first, which he calls the “large form,” follows the pattern SAS’ (C1, 142).  He describes its organization as follows.


The milieu and its forces incurve on themselves, they act on the character, throw him a

challenge, and constitute a situation in which he is caught.  The character reacts in his

turn (action properly speaking) so as to respond to the situation, to modify the milieu, or

his relation with the milieu, with the situation, with other characters.  He must acquire a

new mode of being (habitus) or raise his mode of being to the demands of the milieu and

of the situation. Out of this emerges a restored or modified situation, a new situation (C1,



On the face of it, this sounds basic enough, given that the vast majority of films in most anyone’s viewing history will correspond to this scheme.  An individual character is assumed (as Deleuze says, “Everything is individuated”) who will be dropped into a set of circumstances and will meet their challenge in some way.  He or she will perform an action which will respond to and thereby alter the circumstances, bringing into being a new situation, which Deleuze calls S-prime.  Keep in mind that in order to have this scheme play itself out, it has, like the geometric proof it so resembles, some givens – a somewhat stable character who can do things, and an environment which is at least stable and knowable enough to allow the actant to make evaluations about it, and act on the basis of those assessments.

The other basic formula for the action-image begins with an action, which creates new circumstances from which all future action must follow. Deleuze calls this the “small form,” of ASA’. 


This time it is the action which discloses the situation, a fragment or an aspect of the

situation, which triggers off a new action.  The action advances blindly and the situa-

tion is disclosed in darkness, or in ambiguity.  From action to action, the situation

gradually emerges, varies, and finally either becomes clear or retains its mystery.

. . . It is a reversed sensory-motor schema (C1, 160).


Within the “small form,” an actant does something, and like a kind of reality testing, the actant experiences the waves of resonance which his or her action create throughout the milieu.  While the repercussions of the action – in the form of the new situation – are not entirely predictable, the ASA’ form guarantees that the new situation will remain a coherent enough launching pad to allow a new action to be attempted. And perhaps more significantly, the actant is one who is capable of creating these shifts in the situational field.  The actant is capable of something, not fully predictable but not feckless.

In considering L’humanité, it is first of all worth noting that Deleuze makes a distinction within the movement-image between the “crime story” and the “detective story.” Since Dumont’s film is presented largely, though not exclusively, through the eyes of Detective Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté), we would have to conclude that L’humanité stakes its thematic claim more on detection that criminal activity, although the film, as we will see, problematizes this division. Deleuze writes


There may, of course, be detectives in the crime film, just as there may not be any in the

detective film.  What distinguishes the two types is that in the crime formula – SAS –

one moves from the situation, or the milieu, towards actions which are duels, while in the

detective formula – ASA – one moves from blind actions, as indices, to obscure situations

which vary entirely or which fluctuate completely, depending on a minuscule variation in

the index (C1, 164).


So, if we may gloss on Deleuze’s analysis, we might say that both the criminal and the detective can act, but the criminal has the upper-hand, as he or she acts from within a situation, and this situation is typically on-screen.  The criminal act, from the viewpoint of the criminal, is a choice which disrupts an equilibrium to which we, the audience, are also privy, since we would otherwise be in the position of the startled detective.  The detective, operating within an ASA structure, confronts an already-committed crime, a sort of off-screen S which Deleuze refers to as an index, following Peirce.  That is, the detective must make an action in response to the already-disturbed equilibrium of the situation, a situation which hypothetically exists before the start of the movie. So, the discovery of this disequilibrium, in the form of the crime scene, already points off-screen to a prior actant, who must be deduced, or even reconstructed, on the basis of whatever other indices he or she leaves behind.

The opening sequence of L’humanité is not the typical police display of the newly-discovered crime scene.  In fact, the exact location and circumstances of the opening sequence are nearly impossible to locate with certainty.  A figure, Pharaon de Winter we presume, is shown in an extreme long shot, disrupting a placid and beautifully composed rural landscape.  His tiny, nearly indiscernible form can be seen running from left to right, and he crosses from one end of the frame to the other in this still shot which lasts just under a minute.  This opening shot is an encapsulation of everything which will follow in the film, because it manages to subsume all movement within an impassive, stolid earth.  In fact, the film’s drama of human struggle and frailty not only lumbers under the weight of the earth’s gravitational pull, but operates at a pace set by the slow, static landscape.

In the next set of shots, we see Pharaon in medium close up, climbing over a fence to step onto a muddy field; the camera tracks slowly along with him, but maintains its distance as he runs away from the camera.  We see a close-up of his feet, and then his torso, as he runs through the mud. At the end of the fourth shot, we see Pharaon suddenly go down and slip off the bottom of the frame.  Then, in close-up, we see him belly-flop, face first, into the mud.  The sound of wind, and possibly the ocean, contrasts with this astonishing image of an all-encompassing earth.  This is our detective, whose relationship with human time seems utterly out of step when compared with his more primary existence as a weighted, material being, leaden and earthbound.  For the next several minutes, Pharaon remains on the ground, and we see the landscape in the distance from his perspective, the lowest possible.  Across the way, on the side of the road which runs alongside this fallow field, we see Pharaon’s police car in a long shot, and we hear the faint but increasing sound of his police radio.  Suddenly, Pharaon is in his cop car, and slowly answers the call.  Weakly, as if communication were all but impossible for him, Pharaon tells the dispatcher, “I’m on my way.”

But he will not drive to the crime scene for another several minutes of screen time.  Instead, he sits still in his car seat, opening and closing his eyes, slumping over then leaning back, his slight motions only dramatizing his utter inactivity.  He reaches over to the tape deck, presses play, and we hear one of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos.  The film spends nearly a minute with Pharaon as he listens to Bach, turns it off, and drives to the crime scene.

Like the detective in Deleuze’s traditional ASA’ schema, the viewer of L’humanité is thrust into a scene of ongoing activity, a situation which is unclear and unknowable.  Pharaon runs through the field as if it were a crime scene itself; this ambiguity, in fact, has been marshaled as evidence that Pharaon is the killer.  However, following Deleuze’s analysis of the ASA’ detective structure, we can see that Dumont is introducing both Pharaon and the generalized human condition of L’humanité in a much more radical way.  Why doesn’t Pharaon rush immediately to the crime scene?  A killer is on the loose, and as a detective, he should want to start actively pursuing the details.  That is, he should jump to panicked attention, like a sleeper hearing a loud noise – the jolt of social disequilibrium should register on his face and in his gait.  Instead, Pharaon’s behavior prior to receiving the call is actually slightly more kinetic than that following his being contacted on the radio, although he still does not move at the speed of “action” as we typically understand it.  So, L’humanité seems to postulate an ongoing criminal situation, in which Pharaon is not running from, nor feels the need to run to, a specific, isolated crime scene.  As Deleuze states in the quotation above, the ASA’ presumes a shattering action which provokes confusion and results in a new situation which is not immediately perceptible.  That is, the indexical A points backwards to an invisible S.  But Pharaon’s (in)actions point to a different possibility – a Big S within which all actions and inactions are already ensnared, which presses upon them with the weight of futility.


II. Five Problems in the Movement-Image

Deleuze’s discussion of the postwar shift from the movement-image to the time-image – that is, to direct images of time, aprat from any definitive action which, in traditional narrative grammar, would justify the expenditure of time – must be fleshed out here, because as I hope to make clear, Dumont’s film is not simply under the sign of the time-image.  It would be easy to mistake L’humanité for a work of Johnny-come-lately modernism, with its palpable languidity, its emphasis on carnal density over breezy triumphant subjectivity, and the thick distance which forces all verbal communication to burrow into its addressee, arduously piercing the skin in order to connect.  In this respect, L’humanité’s reception indicates that the film was regarded almost like a parody of the most hated traits of the postwar European art cinema.  In short, “a slow, boring, difficult film in which nothing happens” – this is the ordinary response to L’humanité, and most time-image films as well, by those who prefer the solidity and subject-centered quality of the movement-image.

And yet . . . Bruno Dumont is not creating a film under the sign of the time-image, although L’humanité certainly partakes of the qualities of pure images of time, and would not itself be possible without the precedent-setting experiments in postwar cinema in which Deleuze most readily identifies those time-images.  Instead, Dumont, is making a somewhat more startling gesture, by returning to the crisis point at which the movement-image began giving way to the time-image.  Dumont restages the crisis of centered subjectivity and the power of action, without finally resolving that crisis by recourse to an image of pure time.  In fact, as I will discuss below, Deleuze’s theory of the time-image has perhaps been domesticated somewhat by cinema history, clarified under the sign of “modernism” or the “art film,” and might in itself lack the power to unnerve and confound that Dumont undoubtedly produces in L’humanité.  So, keeping in mind Deleuze’s definition of the detective-centered action-image iterated above, let’s turn to the crisis of movement, the breakthrough into pure time as an image, to then understand how Dumont restages this crisis as an ongoing chiasmus.  In the final chapter of Cinema 1, Deleuze articulates five specific traits of what we might call the “late movement-image,” signs of its encroaching dissolution.  As will become clear in a moment, L’humanité does not adhere to all of these parameters, just as it does not follow the patterns of the cinema of time.  Rather, L’humanité is a hybrid form which enrages, precisely because it provokes movement-image dilemmas and proffers time-image solutions.

In the first of Deleuze’s precepts of the late movement-image, he writes, “the image no longer refers to a situation which is globalizing or synthetic, but rather to one which is dispersive. The characters are multiple, with weak interferences and become principal or revert to being secondary” (C1, 207).  Deleuze offers the 1970s films of Robert Altman as an exemplar of this form; in films like Nashville and A Wedding we are hard-pressed to identify a single protagonist. Whereas in earlier Altman, such as Brewster McCloud, the formal dispersal of narrative lines was grounded, however tenuously, in the subjective experiences of the titular protagonist, Nashville raises the stakes by dislodging coherence from a character, and effectively locating it in a milieu.  That milieu, of course, is larger and more variegated than any single character could be within the traditional parameters of the movement-image.  Therefore, by the time we are able to speak of cities or other locales as “characters” in the narrative, as with Nashville, as well as more recent “urban symphonies” (Taipei in Yang’s The Terrorizer and Yi Yi; London in Winterbottom’s Wonderland; Mexico City in the recent Amores perros, and far too many Los Angeles films to name), we are beyond even the “encompasser,” that spatial horizon of shared values which Deleuze associates with John Ford’s American West (C1, 146-148).  The city is like a last gasp of spatial coherence in the face of temporal and subjective dissolution.

The second of Deleuze’s signs of the movement-image’s apocalypse has to do with the linear dependency of actions and situations upon one another.  The very structure of the SAS’ and ASA’ schemas begin to give way to narrative ellipses, proximity, adjacency, and even random arrangement.  Deleuze writes


 . . the line or the fibre of the universe which prolonged events into one another, or brought

about the connection of portions of space, has broken. . . . Ellipsis ceases to be a partially

disclosed situation: it belongs to the situation itself, and reality is lacunary as much as dis-

persive. Linkages, connections, or liaisons are deliberately weak.  Chance becomes the sole

guiding thread, as in Altman’s Quintet.  Sometimes the event delays and is lost in idle per-

iods, sometimes it is there too quickly, but it does not belong to the one to whom it happens

(even death . . . ) (C1, 207).


Compare this mode of storytelling to the detective story as Deleuze describes it.  If there is a gap in the story, it is the responsibility of a strong and resourceful protagonist to fill in the ellipsis with deducible knowledge.  What Barthes calls the hermeneutic code obtains – narrative has questions, and often simply one big Question, which it is the primary activity to solve.  As described above, the crisis of the movement-image begins to reveal itself in stories which have “loose ends” which are never resolved.  Again thinking of Barthes’s categories, we could even imagine this randomness taking the form of a “reality effect” gone haywire, in which insignificant details, whose function in the prior regime would have been simply to vouchsafe for realism (“not everything can fall neatly into place”), in this crisis mode such details become fixated upon, as though promising a concrete narrative function which they ultimately do not have, at least not as traditionally conceived.  Consider the characters who people the landscapes of the mid-period works of David Lynch.  Their shocking abnormality would, in the older more secure movement-image, assure them a concrete place in the narrative, whereas in Wild at Heart or Twin Peaks they appear and disappear without consequence. 

Or, we might also interpret Deleuze’s statement on the specific level of the event, leading to a cinema of the “set piece,” passages of action which are equally virtuosic and detachable.  Recent cinema offers numerous examples of such weak links, and the ongoing character of the crisis they provoke can be seen in the impassioned stances taken vis-a-vis this kind of cinema on both sides.  Private emotional outcry (a revitalized auteurism) or sloppy craftsmanship?  The new dispersal, or piss poor plotting?  The films of Léos Carax are object lessons in the crisis of action.  His protagonists (all barely disguised stand-ins for the director himself) endure such ineffectuality within the terms of the old regime that their bursts of unbridled happiness (the “Modern Love” sequence in Mauvais sang, the Bastille Day finale of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf), pitched somewhere between subjective plenitude and the painterly, break apart from the total text and assume autonomy.

The third and fourth characteristics of a movement-image on the wane are summarized by Deleuze as “the voyage form” and “the consciousness of clichés.”  I won’t linger over these, as they are not particularly germane to L’humanité.  To briefly explain them for continuity’s sake, we can say that the voyage form dislodges the spatiotemporal structure of the film from the strict exigencies of plot, departing even from the “road movie” format which would still retain the trappings of the picaresque.  Rather, the actions are derived from locales which exist “at ground level, in aimless movements where characters behave like windscreen wipers (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico)” (C1, 208).  In short, the voyage is not character driven or action driven, but a generalizable situation (“city crime” in the above examples) allows the voyage to lead anywhere and “park” anywhere in order to conduct its transactions.  The “consciousness of clichés” barely requires elaboration, since this particular aspect of the movement-image crisis has itself been plumbed to the point of effacing whatever anxiety it may once have betrayed.  As Deleuze writes, “Physical, optical and auditory clichés and psychic clichés mutually feed on each other.  In order for people to be able to bear themselves and the world, misery has to reach the inside of consciousness and the inside has to be like the outside” (C1, 209).  Characters act out old, somewhat socially ratified scripts, rather than acting in accordance with a given situation.  This element of the movement-image in crisis has become more of a bad faith gesture than a problem to solve; young filmmakers who want to make SAS’ and ASA’ cinema use winking nods to earlier films and genres as an inoculation against charges of unoriginality.  I mention this because while numerous neo-noirs and latter-day thrillers stage miniature crises in their protagonists, L’humanité is “the real thing,” diving into the structure of the policier in order to inhabit it as a crisis of faith.

The final aspect of the immanent collapse of the movement-image is what Deleuze calls “the condemnation of the plot.”  In the simplest terms, we could describe this as post-Marxists do, as the decreasing comprehensibility of the social totality.  As Deleuze remarks, the isolatable forces of “the criminal organization” are replaced by conspiracies and media apparatuses so pervasive as to make it practically redundant to call them conspiratorial (C1, 210).  In this final example of the turn towards modern cinema, we can perhaps observe the influence of Foucault, whose theory of modern discipline entails the constitution of subjective interiority by the apparatus itself, such that calling attention to its functioning is to cement one’s own place inside it.


III. L’humanité and the Movement-Image Crisis

As I discuss earlier in this essay, we can see at least three of these five elements at work in Dumont’s L’humanité – it’s possible a more attentive viewer might see all five at work – but not in the way Deleuze might’ve had in mind when describing New Hollywood fare like Altman and Lumet.  For Deleuze, a stylistic trajectory is at work, in which the postwar period provides the possibility for images of pure time, and this crisis is therefore a European one, which develops unevenly elsewhere in world cinema.  But L’humanité does not simply take up this European mantle – Dumont is not merely a “Bresson imitator,” as has been charged.  Rather, L’humanité returns to the scene of the crime, as it were, to replay this crisis, to reactivate it, or to keep it active as an ongoing problem.  As I hope to show, it is this hybrid form, refusing to fully resolve itself into one image or the other, which maintains contestatory power in the current moment of world cinema.

We can begin, perhaps, with Deleuze’s final characteristic of the imperiled movement-image, the “condemnation of the plot.”  As I describe above, we can arguably see this element at work within L’humanité.  Instead of a world in which chaos and unspeakable human cruelty are shocking exceptions to an otherwise placid and predictable experience, in L’humanité the main characters behave with a tremulous but perpetual horror, a sort of shell-shock which does not prevent activity outright, but serves as a countervailing force against any such activity.  Clearly this is most obvious in Pharaon’s behavior, but he is not alone.

Pharaon cannot rush to the “crime scene,” like a good detective.  (Think of an American cop show, by way of contrast – slapping the flashing light on the top of the car and “step[ping] on it.”) The arrival of a specific crime – the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl – does not provoke the “police instinct” of trying to solve the crime and put the world back on its proper axis.  But this does not mean that Pharaon is apathetic or has given up on the world.  Rather, his mode of investigation contains a physical lassitude which militates against the conventional movement-image of the policier, which operating within that mode.  L’humanité does not abandon the movement-image ASA’ of the detective story, in favor of the time-image; rather, it introduces Pharaon’s personality, one more suited to the time-image of postwar European cinema of seeing-over-acting, into a scenario resolutely on the side of the movement-image.  In other words, to adopt the cynically dismissive language of L’humanité’s most vociferous critics, Pharaon is a “retarded cop.”

But whereas L’humanité’s detractors wonder aloud whether the often-inscrutable Pharaon is mentally retarded (we see ample evidence that he isn’t), my claim is that it is his ability to act which is impeded or comes up against a fundamental resistance.  Pharaon is not like Hamlet, hamstrung by doubt or vacillation.  Not is he apathetic, or even depressed, exactly.  Rather, he moves as if he is at 18 frames-per-second, in a world which traditionally demands the full 24.  There is a physical friction in the environment surrounding Lille, France, as Dumont depicts it, which far exceeds the stereotypical “relaxed pace” of the country.  It is as if Pharaon, and his neighbors to a slightly lesser extent, are moving through an all-encompassing density which acts against all motion.

This can be explained by considering other scenes from L’humanité in more depth.  When we finally see the crime scene, Dumont shows us four fragmented, still images of the young corpse lying dead in the grass.  These images are absolutely shocking, particularly the first, of the girl’s bald, bloody vagina.  This image is barely recognizable as something human, and Dumont follows it with still shots of a thigh covered in ants, splayed legs specked with dirt and bugs, and finally a medium shot of the corpse in the tall grass.  This sequence, which directly quotes form Marcel Duchamp’s Given: 1. The Illuminating Gas, 2. The Waterfall, introduces a kind of horror of death seldom seen in the movies.  The corpse resolutely asserts its stillness, its absence of life.  (In most police procedurals, the corpse is vicariously “revivified” by the gruff, barking activity of detectives, photographers, and bystanders swirling around it.)  In this regard, the corpse is a ground-zero for absolute stasis, against which the living character of Pharaon is only slightly more animated.  Typically, the detective, even if jaded and world-weary, represents a sort of life-force who is responsible on some level for “avenging” the slain, embodying a principle of activity on behalf of them.  Instead, Pharaon seems to identify with the corpse’s stopping.

This sets the parameters for how Pharaon’s investigation will go, and in this regard, the critics who mock L’humanité by saying that Pharaon is “not believable as a cop” are correct.  In fact, Pharaon doesn’t seem capable of believing in himself as a cop, as that role is usually understood.  The police chief (Ghislain Ghesquère), Pharaon’s boss, serves throughout L’humanité as a character foil to Pharaon, because he functions more like a conventionally ineffectual policeman who we might find in a policier more fully on the side of the movement-image.  Both are largely unable to “make the collar,” but the chief functions in recognizable “police time.”  The temporality of Pharaon is more complicated – between the time of painting and the time of mourning.

Pharaon de Winter is an actual nineteenth-century painter, and in L’humanité the policeman of the same name is presented as the artist’s grandson.  (A painting of de Winter’s hangs in Pharaon’s bedroom, and midway through the film he lends it to a museum which is mounting a retrospective.)  The painterly time of Pharaon is emphasized in numerous ways throughout L’humanité, most notably in the still, compositionally orchestrated images which frequently correspond filmically to Pharaon’s gawking observations.  Like the protagonists Deleuze finds in the films of the time-image, Pharaon is a seer, but he is not only that.  His basic tendency is to stand back and observe, but this tendency exists in fundamental tension with his role as the investigator.  He must be active; he must act within the time of the police narrative, even though he is preternaturally disposed against such action, and this results in a hybridity of form.  Pharaon registers as “retarded” because there are those in his world (the police chief, his friend Joseph [Philippe Tullier], and others he encounters) who exist in “proper time,” providing the friction of the film.

But equally significant, and perhaps more illuminating of the “condemnation of the plot” or the evacuation of totality within the thematic universe of L’humanité, is the all-pervading sense of mourning and loss which characterizes Pharaon’s relationship to the world.  This sense of loss and despair is crucial, because it both complicates the reading of Pharaon as exhibiting “flat affect,” and explains why the traditional “find the killer” compulsion of the police procedural cannot really obtain within Pharaon’s world.

After the body has been discovered, Pharaon sits, fragile and devastated, unable to move.  He asks the chief, “How could somebody do such a thing?” and we see Pharaon discussing the case with his neighbor, Domino (Séverine Caneele), who is Joseph’s girlfriend and the woman Pharaon fancies.  He demonstrates no ability to cordon off the unpleasantness of his detective work from his everyday social interactions.  Rather, even the simplest exchanges are tinged with a sense of hopelessness.  Pharaon’s investigation moves at as snail’s pace, as does Pharaon himself, and this seems to be in large part because Pharaon is both emotionally destroyed by the killing, and also somehow sees it as just another instance of the all-encompassing brutality of humankind.  In a potent sequence, we see Pharaon searching for clues around the crime scene, and as the Eurostar train roars by and disrupts the relative quiet, Pharaon runs up to the fence and screams.  All the anger, frustration and mournfulness, all the helplessness to actually wage any kind of successful war against human violence, wells up in Pharaon, expressed as a scream no one can possibly hear.  And so, we can see that the traditional social structure which aids and abets the policier has effectively vanished, leaving an empty form in its wake – a form which must be filled out through stunted activity nonetheless.  The “encompasser” or totality has become one of all-pervasive violence and hatred, against which there is no “equilibrium” to disrupt or restore.

Therefore, Pharaon is not simply an observer who plays out the postwar skepticism toward decisive action.  Instead, L’humanité frustrates precisely because we bristle along with Pharaon and the demands of police investigation.  There really is a crime story; it is not a mere pretext to be abandoned.  The film, and Pharaon himself, show a dogged commitment to finding the murder, inasmuch as any pursuit is possible within a framework of all-pervasive guilt.  What would it mean for Pharaon to track, capture, and punish the assailant?  It would mean, first of all, that the detective has the traction, much less the moral authority, to take action to put the world right again.  But it would also mean that, as Deleuze discusses vis-a-vis the crime conspiracy, that a single individual or group of individuals can actually be singled out for “guilt” against a larger backdrop of “innocence.”  This is a distinction which L’humanité steadfastly denies.  Yet, it remains within the movement-image, because it does not abdicate responsibility for the pursuit of that distinction.

One of the most shocking aspects of L’humanité is its conclusion, which provides a tentative and ambiguous solution for the crime.  Joseph is arrested for the murder.  This is rather stunning because, as viewers, we have by this point become rather certain that no solution will be proffered.  That is, we are led to believe that the police will “come up empty,” that the purpose of the police investigation within the film is to provide the structure of a quest which will give way to a generalized malaise.  The best example of this structure is Antonioni’s L’Avventura, in which the search for the missing woman mutates into an all-encompassing aimless despair.  It is this vision of pure temporality, of the abject hopelessness of any and all pursuits, which L’humanité tends to promise.  But then, it unexpectedly makes good on the promise of the police procedural but offering up a killer.

However, the film offers one last controversial twist, and this final image is the point at which L’humanité infuriates the most, marking itself as unresolvably between the movement-image and the time-image, between individual action and global paralysis.  After Joseph confesses to Pharaon, we see Pharaon hug Joseph at length, eventually kissing him on the mouth.  As we have seen with an earlier criminal, Pharaon treats the suspects in a loving, tactile way, which then suddenly switches to “police” behavior – he abruptly ends the hug and throws them down in the chair, firmly but without violence.  In other words, his laying on of hands becomes “procedure,” even though it remains unclear what he is hoping to accomplish – soothing the suspects; smelling “guilt” on them; taking their sins away; all are equally plausible explanations.  After this, we see Pharaon back at Domino’s apartment, comforting her as she cries.  This sequence lasts approximately two minutes.  Then, in the final shot, we see Pharaon sitting in the police interrogation room, slumped and staring, wearing handcuffs.

This final image has provoked intense debate.  Some, like Gavin Smith of Film Comment, have argued that this shot effectively reveals Pharaon as the true killer (Nov 99, p.75).  According to Smith, the frequent point of view shots we see of Pharaon staring at other people’s flesh (particularly his boss’s ruddy neck) indicate an unhealthy fixation of the inner meat of bodies.  However, the other, more common and more plausible interpretation of the final shot is a symbolic reading.  Pharaon, as the stand-in for a generalized humanity throughout the film, takes on guilt for Joseph’s crimes, and perhaps the crimes of others as well.  That is, the unspeakable horrors of humanity are a general situation, for which it is simply impossible to isolate blame in the person of he who carries out those horrors.  And so, the police detective is, on a metaphysical level, incapable of performing the task to which he is assigned.  Yet, Dumont and Pharaon are both sufficiently committed to the policier structure that a solution, however untenable or metaphysically “false,” must be proffered.  Pharaon takes the crimes upon himself, because the situation (in the Deleuzian sense of the S’) demands that someone “take the fall” for humanity.

In essence, L’humanité features two endings. It is at this point that the schizophrenia of Dumont’s film, and the incommensurable chiasmus between the policier and the time-image, becomes most evident.  Here, we can think back to Deleuze’s first two characteristics of the movement-image in crisis, “the dispersive situation” and “the deliberately weak links.”  In effect, Joseph’s arrest “solves” the police detection plot at the moment of its greatest implausibility.  What, other than the film’s commitment to the police form, leads us to expect a solution to the murder?  We reasonably expect the police plot to be abandoned in favor of a generalized ennui or all-pervading sadness which will render any conclusion hollow or meaningless.  But this, too, would in itself be just as artificial and “resolved” as an outright solution to the child’s murder.  The film feels unsatisfactory because its dual commitment to the police procedural (the ASA’ form) and the protracted temporality of Pharaon’s mourning for the world are incompatible, but neither is ultimately abandoned in favor of the other.  L’humanité retains, and I would argue reinvests, the moment of radical dissolution in which the movement-image begins to lose its identity.  Instead of one solution, we have two, both of which are incommensurate.  Moreover, these two solutions essentially create two distinct, almost mutually exclusive Pharaons.  One is the Pharaon on the time-image, who only sees the world, does not participate in it, and ultimately gives himself over to religious / metaphysical “passion,” taking the wounds of humanity on himself.  Deleuze writes

The sensory-motor break makes man a seer who finds himself struck by something

intolerable in the world, and confronted by something unthinkable in thought.  Between

the two, thought undergoes a strange fossilization, which is as it were its powerlessness

to function, to be, its dispossession of itself and the world (C2, 169).


Pharaon’s “condition” could be understood quite clearly within the parameters Deleuze sets out for the inactive, dissolving man (not really a “subject”) who peoples the landscapes of the time-image.  In fact, the all-pervading situation of brutality within which Pharaon finds himself, in which the child murder is a tragedy but hardly an event, could be compared to Deleuze’s description of the “banal intolerable” situation.


The intolerable is no longer a serious injustice, but the permanent state of a daily banality. 

Man is not himself a world other than the one in which he experiences the intolerable and

feels himself trapped.  The spiritual automaton is in the psychic situation of the seer, who

sees better and further than he can react, that is, think (C2, 170).


Pharaon, as the “spiritual automaton,” is he who observes and feels the pain of the world, but cannot formulate a response to it or make any difference within it.  This analysis seems apt as far as it goes, but the fact that Pharaon’s investigation grinds on, until such time as the case is transferred to nearby Lille, indicates that the movement-image of the policier is active and struggling against total breakdown.  In this respect we have a second Pharaon, who links together a set of actions, however ineffectual they may prove to be.  Or, to put it in the form of a joke, we might say that Pharaon is a detective, just not a very good one, and it is within the effort, however futile, that he occupies a terminally undecidable interval between time and movement.  Or, to consider once again the terms laid out by Deleuze in the paragraph above, Pharaon may have trouble reacting, but he can certainly think, and it is this discrepancy between consciousness and action which places Pharaon under the sign of “mourning time.”

To return, finally, to the first of Deleuze’s characteristics of the movement-image in crisis, we can begin to see how L’humanité inhabits this crisis and barely holds it together, threatening to keel over into either the police procedural or the slow and melancholic zone of the time-image.  The film disperses not only its Janus-faced tendencies with respect to Pharaon.  It also drifts into moments of identification with Domino, moments such as the organization of the strike or, more dramatically, her sexual exploits with Joseph.  Only occasionally do these moments relate directly to Pharaon.  (The most significant instances are the strikers’ confrontation outside the mayor’s office, which Pharaon disperses, and the show-stopping sequence early on in the film, when Dumont gives a one-and-a-half-minute stationary medium long shot of Domino and Joseph screwing furiously, only to cut to a reaction shot of Pharaon, gawking at them from the doorway.)  Domino comes as close as anyone in L’humanité to being a second protagonist, but while she is featured independently of Pharaon, she is not quite enough of a focus to represent a co-lead.  The film waivers between total identification with Pharaon, and affording an equal rendering of the woman he desires.  This tension further complicates the structure of the film, resulting in some of the “deliberately weak links” in L’humanité’s organization.  Why does the strike occur?  What does it demonstrate, really, about Pharaon?  Even the police chief seems annoyed by this eruption of narrative unrest which distracts from the murder case.  On some level, this subplot serves only to provide us with another facet of Domino, and yet she remains as fundamentally opaque as she was before we caught a glimpse of her paint factory job.

I would argue that it is in these “weak links” that L’humanité most dramatically pulls itself in both image-directions at once. The majority of L’humanité consists of actions which are linked on the surface level by the investigation, but are always threatening to come unlinked, as those actions slide into the pure observational mode of the time-image.  Pharaon’s trip to the U.K. to question the couple from the train slowly veers toward crestfallen gazing out the window.  The ride with Joseph along the bus route is concretely motivated by the investigatory movement-image, but is tending towards the pure tracking shots of a road movie.  Pharaon’s second trip to question the little girl’s parents yields no information, but allows Pharaon the opportunity to commune with a mother sow nursing her piglets.  These moments are not completely disconnected.  The investigation serves as a counterforce to the absolute non-causal adjacency which would characterize “the method of the BETWEEN” as Deleuze calls it (C2, 180).  These actions slowly come undone, vibrating between narrative function and a purely presentational mode.

But L’humanité is at its most shocking (and, to some viewers, infuriating and intolerable) at those specific points when the logic of the investigation seems to fall out altogether, and we experience the force of the time-image militating against the police procedural narrative line.  Not coincidentally, the most “astonishing” moments in this regard are also those which break from filmic realism most completely.  Near the middle of the film, after an awkward interaction with Domino, Pharaon returns to his own apartment, turns on his television to what appear to be news reports from a battlefield, and performs a mournful keyboard solo.  Pharaon displays no musical skills, and slowly futzes around with the keys and half-heartedly groans along with the notes.  Like the prototypical musical number in a narrative film, this sequence effectively stops the show, often provoking titters from the audience.  While this is understandable, given the privacy of the moment to which we are given access, on a formal level it is clear that the sequence shocks because it is a non sequitur, following neither from the investigation narrative nor the demeanor of Pharaon up to that point.  The intolerable question mark this sequence presents is that Pharaon “isn’t acting like a cop.”  In fact, this somewhat lengthy, inscrutable image threatens to take the film so far away from the movement-image as to make it unrecoverable.  This is also the case in an even more unbelievable sequence near the end of the film, wherein Dumont abandons all claims to filmic realism.  Quietly working in his public garden allotment, Pharaon levitates half a meter off the ground.  By this point in the film, the audience is not surprised by such a cinematic curveball (although the floating scene does cause many a jaw to drop).  Rather, the shock and, arguably, the terror in this image comes from recognizing that L’humanité will not resolve itself definitively towards either the metaphysical or the procedural.  The film remains a “work in progress” until the very last.

In the press notes to L’humanité, Bruno Dumont states simply, “The discovery doesn’t really matter. What counts is the movement: looking” (Rosenbaum 2000).  In this sense, we can understand L’humanité as intentionally incomplete but in perpetual motion. As I hope this essay has suggested, the film’s motion consists in large part of a movement-image centrifugally lunging toward the time-image and always pulled back.  L’humanité, for all its deliberate pacing and stalled action, is a fluctuating energy field, divided against itself and always on the verge of disintegration.  Jonathan Rosenbaum has written of L’humanité as “unfinished,” in the compelling, productively open-ended way to which we are more accustomed in areas other than the cinema.

[This film] led me to reflect on a few of the fundamental differences in how novels

and movies are perceived. Kafka is allowed to leave all his novels unfinished—and,

indeed, might not even be valued as much today if he’d forced conclusions on Amerika,

The Trial, or The Castle. But Welles is castigated by most of his biographers for leaving

a few of his films unfinished, and Eyes Wide Shut is automatically diminished in some

people’s eyes for not having been fully mixed by Kubrick before he died. Similarly, we

tolerate some paintings and symphonies having been left unfinished but not movies, the

assumption being that their “formal” demands require some closure (Rosenbaum 2000).


If we are to take the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze seriously, if they have something to tell us about the impact that cinema can have on our culture and our lives, an indispensable element of these ideas to which we must come to terms is “unfinishedness,” the incomplete Becoming which should characterize human existence.  David Rodowick summarized Deleuze’s commitment in this way.

Rimbaud’s poetic statement, “I is an other,” expresses a fundamental idea in Deleuze’s

philosophy of difference.  That Deleuze has no theory of “the subject” is very true. Nothing

is more alien to Deleuze’s thought than the form of identity where Ego = Ego. Because the

impersonal form of time divides us from ourselves, constructions of subjectivity are always

changing.  There is no singular or self-identical subject because we think, exist, and live in

time; subjectivity is becoming, change, deterritorialization, repetition becoming difference,

the singular becoming multiple (Rodowick 1997, 140).


One of the many oddities and inconsistencies about Bruno Dumont’s film and its reception has been that fundamental marker of firm identity – its title.  In most writing about the film, particularly in the United States, it has been called L’Humanité, with a capital ‘H’.  This is clearly not the spelling in the opening titles of the film, and when Dumont has pointed out this error, journalists have tended to scoff, as though he were being a temperamental artist.  But the distinction is significant.  The capitalization implies “humanity” as a totality, all of humankind.  Thus, when a writer capitalizes the title, he or she is making a strong claim about the definitive meaning of the film.  Its gravity and ponderousness can only mean that Pharaon is a symbolically loaded stand-in for all of Humanity.  However, the lowercase, actual title, L’humanité, refers not to a knowable set of people, or even an abstract concept, but a quality – the state of being human. Given the film’s undecidable, inconclusive quality, Dumont’s title is far more appropriate.  Pharaon is not a Christ-like representative for us all.  Rather, he exhibits the humanity we all share, that which allows us to feel compassion for those who do wrong, and to recognize how the potential to do wrong exists within ourselves as well.  Following Deleuze, we must understand all humanity to be lowercase, tentative, an ongoing investigation, a work in progress.

















[1] In his 1948 essay “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” Lacan describes the tendency of ego formation towards entification, hard defensive solidity which shuts out the unforeseen adventures of becoming.  He sees this tendency as one of the characteristics of knowledge or inquiry as we typically understand it.   This is instrumental knowledge which seeks to predict the world’s holdings in order to control it.  Lacan writes, “this formal stagnation is akin to the most general structure of human knowledge: that which constitutes the ego and its objects with attributes of permanence, identity, and substantiality, in short, with entities or ‘things’ that are very different from the Gestalten that experience enables us to isolate in the shifting field, stretched in accordance with the lines of animal desire” (Écrits, Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: Norton, 1977, p.17).  Inasmuch as I understand the anti-subjective thrust in Deleuze’s thought, it seeks to free these lines of animal desire, to open to becoming against entification, by dissolving the ego as a placeholder in any sense.  In terms of cinema, it seems that the movement-image retains egoic features, in the form of identifiable actants.  By retaining the policier structure, however damaged, as a threatened armature which counteracts complete formal dispersal, L’humanité may reflect a Lacanian more than a Deleuzian sensibility.  That is, it adopts forms whose stagnation must be militated against, without abandoning those forms.  This dialectic shows parallels to the retention in Lacan of “subjectivity” as a force projected toward becoming, as opposed to Deleuze’s jettisoning of the category as already-entified.

[2] In his 1968 essay, “The Reality Effect,” Barthes describes the proffering of details, in excess of the strict demands of the narrative, as a guarantor of literary realism.  That is, objects and events which serve no necessary purpose in linking the fabula together are present to mirror the radical excess of “reality.”  He explains this effect as an inheritance from historical discourse – details imply an objectivity beyond those immediate needs of the subject  (“The Reality Effect.”  The Rustle of Language, Richard Howard, trans.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, pp. 141-148).