A few years back, a publicist called up trying to interest me in a new French film called La Vie de Jesus. “It’s made by a former professor of philosophy,” she chirped brightly. When I told her I’d already seen it, she asked what I thought. “I thought it seemed like a film made by a former professor of philosophy,” I said, in a tone that pretty much ended the conversation.

Any film concerning a bunch of young louts screwing and riding motorcycles around northern France that calls itself La Vie de Jesus has almost got to read “nearly insufferable” on the great meter of Gallic arty pretentiousness, and Bruno Dumont’s debut feature did. That’s one reason why his second film, though also pretentiously titled and definitely made by the same guy, comes as such a surprise. Humanite it is called, and it strikes me as unquestionably the best European film to open in the United States so far this year. My strong recommendation of it, though, requires a couple of advisories upfront.

First: The movie contains some very explicit sex scenes and close-ups of female genitalia. These are about as erotic as a trip into the frozen meats locker at your local supermarket, and in Dumont’s scheme of meaning I think they’re entirely justified aesthetically. But viewers likely to be offended should be forewarned.

Second: Ostensibly a murder mystery, Humanite has one of those “don’t give away the ending” endings–albeit one that’s more opaque and debate-provoking than simply surprising a la The Usual Suspects. I’m not going discuss the plot in a way that will reveal anything important, but I do think it’s a good idea to say this to prospective viewers: Pay particularly close attention to the first minute and the last minute of the film. (How does one know when the last minute has arrived? Here’s the only clue you should need: It comes just as the crime has apparently been solved.)

Lest the above give the wrong impression, I should stress that calling Humanite a murder mystery is about like calling Moby Dick a fishing story. Certainly, Dumont’s film begins with the discovery of a crime that will occupy the rest of the story: In a coastal town in northwestern France, the body of a murdered, sexually violated 11-year-old girl is discovered. But from the very first, “what happens” remains secondary to the way Dumont stages and visualizes it. In the striking opening sequence, for example, his exquisite CinemaScope images have the strange intensity of a hyperrealist landscape painting; there’s an implicit correlation between the physicality of the loamy earth and of the girl’s dead body and genitals; and the elliptical editing leaves an aura of incompleteness and mystery hovering over the narrative.

Through much of the story, the murder investigation takes a backseat to Dumont’s observation of three characters. One, Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotte), is the police detective in charge of the investigation and the film’s protagonist. He’s a doughy, slow-witted, supremely unassertive cop; we hear he’s lost his wife and little girl not long before. His companions are a couple, or at least a voracious sexual team, and in the casting of the two nonactors who play them the film really does approach genius. Domino (Severine Caneele), who repays Pharaon’s hopeless attraction to her with a kind of gruff friendship, is a large-boned peasant Valkyrie with the face of a battleship. Her swain, truck driver Joseph (Philippe Tullier), should have his image in the dictionary next to “French jerk.” Even the shape of his head is like an icon of Gallic loutishness.

Domino and Joseph are nominally Pharaon’s only “friends,” yet the word takes on a rueful bitterness when defined by the mixture of casual indifference and humiliating condescension with which they treat him. He inhabits a kind of pathetic, needy loneliness that’s only magnified by their fierce, animal togetherness, which also helps give their relationship with him a weirdly Oedipal tinge. This is where the sex comes in. Joseph and Domino go at it like the survival of the human race depended on their frantic couplings, and Dumont’s camera watches them with a kind of forensic detachment. The action and the way it’s viewed underscore how Joseph (and the viewer) is forever excluded from their fevered contact. Yet these scenes do something else as well: provide the bluntest possible reminders of the physical reality of life, and of the world to which the camera gives a different, spectral form of existence.

This insistence is the cornerstone of Dumont’s enterprise, and it’s mirrored on many levels of the film. Humanite deftly captures the boredom of small-town life, the petty and innocuous rituals, the way countryside near the sea looks when swept by clouds, the mechanically monstrous appearance that cars and trucks and trains sometimes have–all these details and countless others accrue a kind of the hypnotic facticity such as you hardly see in films. At certain moments, you catch your breath at the sight of something that’s thoroughly ordinary but that, as Dumont shows it, suddenly makes you go, “My God, is this the world we live in?”

Such startling revelations of the everyday are among the finest purposes of the visual arts, and Dumont sticks close to the facticity of the photographic image as well as to the world it observes. (Indeed, this is one of those films that make you wonder if digital imagery could possibly equal the kind of contemplative fixity of attention that celluloid images at their best encourage.) The main thing the film does, finally, is make you look, and this it accomplishes not only by looking itself, with a strange, unusual intentness, but also by showing characters looking and then, sometimes, lingering for an unusually long time on the objects of their gaze.

The movie’s photographic/physical specificity combined with its odd, disturbing dramatic mood makes it a subtly ravishing experience throughout; it’s one of those rare movies you come out of dazed and blinking, seeing the world through different eyes. It’s also a rarity nowadays in that it’s bound to inspire many viewers to repair immediately to a cafe for lengthy discussions, largely centered on the meaning of the story and, especially, its ending. My own view of that, in a nutshell, is that it doesn’t matter as much as it may seem to. The great ingenuity of Dumont’s conception comes in using a murder mystery–a banal and conventional form, but one that induces a particular kind of attention–to frame and evoke issues that have little to do with plot and character.

To judge both by the film and the comments he’s made about it, Dumont means to convey two things especially. One is the irreducible humanity (hence the title) of the characters he’s created, even the most pitiful and guilt-ridden among them. The second is the immanence of the spiritual in the mundane, the religious sense that invariably lurks behind the sensible. In the film’s notes he writes: “The natural world here is just the visible aspect of the invisible, its form. … Everything is confined to physical appearance and disgrace, everything is incarnated in humble bodies and silent faces; the conscience and the spirit go to ground. … Humanite is a tragedy because it contains the painful emergence, slow, brown and carnal, of a dazzled and mystical consciousness.”

In effect, though, those words give us the goals that Humanite aspires toward but doesn’t quite reach. Its ambitions, however worthy, are finally a bit too lofty and abstract to merge organically with what the film achieves on the dramatic and stylistic levels. Dumont’s work also owes a great deal to that of Robert Bresson, but while Bresson’s Catholic faith was a seamless part of his filmmaking, Dumont’s “mystical consciousness” feels forced and theoretical, an understandable but ungainly attempt to retrieve God from the scrap heap to which He was consigned after being “deconstructed” by the desiccated, self-deluding European mind.

When David Denby reviewed Humanite in The New Yorker this past summer, he started out by saying that it took him back to what the term “foreign film” used to mean. I understand the sentiment completely. In recalling the seriousness and intellectual reach once associated with the likes of Bergman and Antonioni, Humanite not only evokes the golden age of European film but also, alas, reminds us of how far it has fallen since then. The movie’s own measure of failure points directly to the current failures of European art and French intellectualism. Yet its earnest intent and superb execution bring something very real back to the cinema: true mystery.

The two worst movies of the year so far, by my reckoning, are Neal LaBute’s Nurse Betty and Joe Berlinger’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I measure awfulness not by any kind of theoretical rock-bottom of utter dreadfulness, but against the promise formerly exhibited by the films’ makers. In the case of both of these crappy and punishingly banal Hollywood movies, we have former Sundance heroes whose foreheads should now be branded “SELL OUT.”

Blair Witch 2–which plays like Scream 4–is the worse by a considerable margin. The original Blair Witch Project, let us recall, was such a refreshing and rewarding micro-budgeter because it was the first notable horror film in decades to trust in the viewer’s imagination. In doing so, it constructed a fascinating, Hawthornesque fable about the current uneasy relationship between technology (and the people bound to it) and nature, and also found both symbolic and expressive uses in the clash of film and video.

In a nutshell, the Blair Witch 2 trashes all of these virtues and turns the franchise into another example of the stupid, nonscary teen “horror” movies to which the first film was such a welcome alternative. In other words, everyone involved decided to take the money and run. The original’s creators, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, executive-produced here, so they deserve part of the blame, as does Artisan Pictures. But the lion’s share goes to former documentarian Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper), who with this stupefyingly meretricious piece of drek does to his reputation something that’s too gruesome for any horror flick. EndBlock