Why you should care

If it’s a golden age for TV, then foreign miniseries like this are your window into how the rest of the world is remaking visual storytelling.

In 2010 it was Carlos. Last year it was Burning Bush, and now it’s Li’l Quinquin: foreign, auteur-crafted miniseries being released stateside as theatrical films. Much has already been written about the ascent of television as the premier visual storytelling medium of our day — but this hybridization only muddles that debatable narrative.

Li’l Quinquin (which can be viewed in its entirety on Fandor) is not only the latest example of this trend, but also something of a departure for director Bruno Dumont. A French filmmaker who’s won several prizes at Cannes and other film festivals, Dumont has evinced a bleak, borderline nihilistic outlook on humanity throughout his prior work. This latest outing — which clocks in at just under 3 1/2 hours, divided into four episodes — isn’t much more upbeat, but it is considerably funnier. Between its serial-killer mystery and frequent forays into deadpan levity, it registers as a more comically absurd True Detective, only with less philosophizing and more slapstick. It takes place in the kind of quaint seaside community that these stories so often do, the landscape’s understated beauty acting as an ironic juxtaposition to the grim story being told.

The film’s namesake is a pugnacious preteen who leads a gang of other misguided ruffians. Quinquin is an endearing hellion, less mean-spirited than free-spirited — except, that is, when it comes to a Muslim immigrant. Dumont is at his most serious when unearthing the town’s foundational racism and its lingering effects. Quinquin’s foil is the weary detective investigating a series of murders involving both humans and cows, usually with the former either inserted into or eaten by the latter. The bags under his eyes as he makes inquiries into the source of this bovine brutality are so deep you could put your groceries in them, while his hair looks as if it was poured from a salt-and-pepper shaker.

… a more comically absurd True Detective, only with less philosophizing and more slapstick.

Alison Willmore, film critic at BuzzFeed and former TV editor of Indiewire, says that these foreign miniseries “are films, really. They feel like films, they’re structured like them, they are not particularly episodic.” But she’s rightly skeptical about whether this format represents a sea change. Rather, international miniseries like Quinquin have allowed a minor incursion of TV into the film festival world, and far from being something new, Willmore says their style is “more old school, harking back to Fassbinder making Berlin Alexanderplatz, than a sign of our medium-blurring times.”

It’s difficult to maintain interest in the film’s unraveling mystery when Dumont’s own focus wanders in the second half. As suspect after suspect turns into the latest victim, and the chance of any real resolution becomes increasingly slim, you learn to take Quinquin as more a series of intriguingly strange happenings and less as a satisfying narrative. On those terms, it’s a hilarious and often inspired whodunnit with a latent sadness epitomized by how few characters are curious to find out who actually did it.

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