Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Aug. 18-27 at the American Film

Institute’s National Film Theater

The first scene of Bruno Dumont’s Humanity is a long shot in which a figure can barely be discerned walking in the distance. The convention in such compositions is for the person to gradually approach the camera, but that’s not Dumont’s style. The individual walks along the horizon, never turning toward the viewer. Eventually we get a better look at Pharaon De Winter, but emotionally he never comes much closer.

At least Pharaon (Emmanuel Schotte) has a face, unlike the other character introduced in the opening sequence: a raped, murdered 11-year-old schoolgirl. The deadpan close-ups of the corpse leave no doubt about what happened, and if these shots are the film’s most disturbing, they’re not uncharacteristic. As in his previous film, the more plausible, less eerie The Life of Jesus, Dumont boldly trains his camera on parts of the human anatomy that are usually avoided by everything except pornography and medical texts. He chronicles acts that are staples of the former, but with a neutrality more typical of the latter.

Abandon all expectations of French verbosity and intellectualism when entering Dumont’s world, which is based on the small, working-class northern town where the writer-director grew up. The people who inhabit it don’t talk much, and sometimes it’s not clear that they even think. The morose, quirky Pharaon is—improbably—a plainclothes cop, making Humanity—technically—a police procedural. Yet the policeman doesn’t sift the evidence or engage in informed speculation; when he travels to London to interview possible witnesses, the effort seems pointless. Pharaon wanders the crime scene as if in a daze, occasionally howling his anguish. When presented with a suspected drug dealer, he cradles the man’s head and appears to sniff him like a dog. (Later, Pharaon’s animal-like empathy extends to a doctor, a nursing sow, and others.)

Pharaon’s sense of smell doesn’t help solve the murder, but then Dumont doesn’t really care much about the case, which will not be solved by the policeman anyway. The director spends more time charting the policeman’s curious relationship with the mannish, swaggeringly sexual Domino (Severine Caneele), who drags Pharaon along on dates with her boyfriend, Joseph (Philippe Tullier). The threesome’s relationship is not altogether wholesome; when Domino hands her underpants to Joseph so she can urinate, he stuffs them in Pharaon’s face. Tormented as he is by lust and jealousy—or is his agony just existential?—the cop seems as likely to have killed the girl as any of the other characters Dumont introduces.

This scenario might seem ridiculous, and indeed the film abandons The Life of Jesus’ naturalism in favor of an exaggeratedly deliberate pace and an unearthly tone. Yet Humanity is built from bits of the real. Dumont uses only amateur performers and forgoes most forms of cinematic trickery. (He’s Bresson without the possibility of grace.) His universe is alienating not because it’s so strange but because it’s only a little bit strange. Like Schotte and Caneele—who gained the Best Actor and Best Actress prizes last year at Cannes, where Humanity was both praised and reviled—the movie is compellingly ordinary, with just a twist of the inexplicable.

Before the camera even discovers the body, Pharaon turns off the baroque music on his car radio, beginning more than two hours of aural hypersensitivity. (The music doesn’t return until the final credits.) Simple sounds are subtly amplified until the viewer begins to share the policeman’s sense of ominously heightened sensitivity. Humanity doesn’t so much tell a story as conjure a mood of profound uneasiness. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but an unforgettable one.

Tiny Santa Fe, N.M., doesn’t have many landmarks, so The Tao of Steve needn’t work too hard to include most of them: the mountains, the opera, St. John’s College. The last isn’t identified as such, yet as someone who did some time at the “great-books” school—at the Annapolis campus, but the curriculum is identical and the vibe reportedly similar—I recognized it immediately. Where else you would encounter a pudgy slacker who uses Laotzu’s rigorous detachment and Kierkegaard’s existential gloom as seduction techniques?

Actually, such characters probably exist at any college with a philosophy department. Still, The Tao of Steve’s great-books banter wouldn’t play as persuasively at, say, the University of Maryland. And pudgy slacker Dex (veteran bit-parter Donal Logue, in his first starring role) fits the St. John’s model perfectly. In addition to being randy and overeducated, he’s unmotivated: Ten years after graduation, he’s working as a kindergarten teacher—which is almost as popular a career among St. John’s-educated philosophers as bartending.

Personal interest aside, the St. John’s connection is worth emphasizing because everything else about the movie is commonplace. Add $20 million to the budget, make the male lead thin and the female lead Julia Roberts, and you’d have utterly conventional megaplex fodder. If the unexplored romantic comedy is not worth making, then director-writer Jenniphr Goodman and co-writers Duncan North (the model for Dex) and Greer Goodman (the director’s sister) have a lot of explaining to do.

The action begins at a college identified only by a tracking shot of shelves of great books. It’s the class of 1988’s reunion, and the assembled women are surprised to learn that the man who bedded so many of them is now (a) fat and (b) still a champion seducer. Among the frostier old classmates is Syd (Greer Goodman), who’s insulted that Dex doesn’t remember her, let alone their one-night stand. Syd is now a set designer on temporary assignment at the Santa Fe Opera, and she’s staying with friends of Dex, so they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. In fact, the script even contrives to have them share a ride to work, so Syd can regularly contemplate Dex’s hatefulness while he—you guessed it—falls in love with her.

The counterpoint to this inevitable development is provided by Dex’s tutorials of young, unphilosophical Dave (Kimo Wills), who can’t get laid. Dex explains that the secret of seduction is being a “Steve”—as in Steve McQueen and some other, less certifiably cool Steves—who’s so detached from desire that women flock to him. At this point, classical philosophy loses its hold over the screenplay. Although Dex is the kind of guy who lounges around the house with a copy of The Gnostic Gospels, the conversation devolves into discussions of Josie and the Pussycats and The Bugaloos.

It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Dex is violating his own precepts of male coolness in his effort to win Syd, while advising Dave to forget everything he ever heard about the Tao of Steve. True love, it turns out, trumps all strategies and renders all philosophies meaningless. Of course, you don’t need to study the great books to understand this. You could learn it just by watching Julia Roberts movies. CP