WHEN L'HUMANITE'S principal actor and actress were given the highest acting awards at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, many felt the jury had simply gone too far. After all, Dumont had gone out of his way to use non-professionals who had never acted before. Severiné Caneele, the female lead, took her award in almost mute acceptance, her broad, dull face and burning sunken eyes giving off as little of the undercurrent of her feelings as they do in the film. She had beaten out Catherine Deneuve, among others, to win the award, a supreme injustice in many critic's eyes.

Not that her acting is not brilliant. Quite the opposite: in the character of Domino, Caneele give us one of the modern cinema's most resonant female characters, ample and desolate, like a lone tree in a far field. Her basic sex, both the act and the object, resonate throughout the film, bluntly underscoring Dumont's basic dualities: birth & death, sex and love. Emmanuel Schotte, the non-actor who portrays the male protagonist, Pharaon De Winter, also delivers a stunning, elemental performance of sustained brilliance, perfectly illuminating Dumont's proposed, "Sketch of a manfalse, discordant in his attitude and intonation. A simple man; he is clear and gentle: the universal part is the most visible."

With his liquid eyes and his slow, purposeful gait, Schotte traverses the screen with the purity of living flesh, the weight of his body anchoring every shot. Indeed, in L'Humanite Dumont evokes a world of such elemental force, of such echoing simplicity that it is bound to affect you deeply-- or, perhaps more appropriately, it is bound to infect you deeply.

Over 2 1/2 hours long, glacially paced, purposefully opaque, Dumont's film seems almost designed to indulge in the worst qualities of European art-film. Ponderous, self-important, purposefully oblique, and aggressively sluggish, the film poses as a murder mystery that eschews tension and steadfastly refuses to develop its own plot. Unadorned cinematography add to the seeming aloofness of the film. Dumont himself notes, "...I'm always looking for things to film that are drab, ordinary, and consequently it's why the crews on my movies get so bored: I'm forever filming boring, uninteresting things."

But to contemplate the surface of the film, to cop to the very accessible frustration the film invites is to close yourself off to it, for in the end, L'Humanite is a supremely affecting work whose power comes almost entirely from what is missing, from what it refuses to tell, from what it doesn't seem able to explain. L'Humanite examines just that as it follows a slow-moving, small town police investigator, Pharaon De Winter, through his investigation of a brutal rape and murder of a child in a tiny hamlet on the bleak northern coast of France.

De Winter spends much of his day in idle and taut obsession with his neighbor, the elemental, carnal Domino, and her eager, dim boyfriend Joseph. Nothing much happens over the course of the investigation: De Winter and his police chief follow a few leads, and make some interviews, but there is little to justify the final arrest, and indeed, Dumont seems to force the question of De Winter's possible guilt onto us, provocatively implying that the humanity of the title is summarily linked with the darkest of mankind's evils.

The film leads to no immediate conclusions, and indeed eviscerates any sense the viewer may have of completeness, of finality. Unlike most films you've seen, yet very much like every masterpiece, it continues to grow, haunt, paralyze, and inspire long past its conclusion. It infects on first viewing, and that infection spreads.