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What Does It Mean to Be a Human Researcher? Deleuze’s Character of the Forger in the Film L’humanité

L'humanité (Bruno Dumont, 1999)



This essay uses the (cinema) philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and the film L’humanité (1999) by French director Bruno Dumont to discuss what it means to be a human researcher. The figure of the human researcher will be elaborated in relation to the character of the police detective, who similarly gravitates around notions like truth and methodology, subjectivity and objectivity. The essay charts the difference between someone who exposes himself to the nature of a thing and someone for whom knowledge and expertise are the starting points for research. This distinction will be made discussing the character of the traditional police detective on the one hand and the main character of the film L’humanité, police detective Pharaon, on the other hand. It will be argued that Pharaon’s struggle in confrontation with the rape and murder of a young girl is a specific kind of human research related to this violence. Pharaon, entrusted with the investigation, researches in a different way than the traditional police detective, in the sense that Pharaon uses a specific ethos which is not related to knowledge about justice or methods to capture criminals. Pharaon’s struggle is connected to his own self and exposure to the world. In line with Paul Smeyers’ argumentation, we will argue that to a certain extent contemporary research can be compared to the work of the traditional police detective (2010, pp. 161-176). It might also be said that the contemporary researcher investigates in relation to a certain established foundation of knowledge that demands a permanent update of knowledge to find solutions to new situations. Pharaon,  particularly his gaze and body, are put forward in this essay to suggest an alternative.

The Traditional Police Detective

Two types of traditional police detectives

L’humanité presents a silent police detective who is entrusted with a homicide investigation. An eleven year old girl was raped and murdered on her way home after school. We do not, however, get to see very much of this fact. The film doesn’t show the act of killing, nor does it present a traditional search for the murderer. What the film does dramatize for more than two hours is not something that can be understood as a traditional detective story. Detective films or television series usually show how a professional police officer, step by step and by using an efficient methodology, succeeds in solving the crime. During the playing time viewers get ample opportunity to do their own investigating and with the dénouement, in most cases, the central question of who committed the crime gets an answer. In his article “Statistics and the Inference to the Best Explanation. Living without Complexity?” (2010), philosopher Paul Smeyers writes about the police detective and the similarities of his investigative techniques with academic research. He shows how in our society gathering knowledge and following a specific method are crucial to the discovery of truth, of that which is hidden to us, with the intent of solving a specific problem. Smeyers discusses two kinds of researchers we might recognize from detective series like Morse and CSI. There is the specialist who, as in a series like CSI, hunts for evidence. This kind of researcher sets out to solve the crime using physical evidence like fingerprints or DNA. The second type of researcher, who is more like Morse, concentrates on trying to understand the murder, interpreting the stories that go on between the individual characters (Smeyers, 2010, p. 169). This researcher is looking for connections between social groups and particular relations between people that might explain why someone was murdered (Smeyers, 2010, p. 169). Both types of researchers have in common that they are looking for the perpetrator and they use a specific method to uncover the truth. The CSI-type, Smeyers continues, is blinded in a way because of his focus on physical evidence and the specific protocol that follows from this kind of investigation. The researcher who works like Morse is much more impulsive, uses his intuition and somehow has a more general approach, but he also often gets it wrong (Smeyers, 2010, p. 170). The CSI-type limits himself to physical evidence, whereas the Morse-type uses a broader perspective (Smeyers, 2010, p. 170), a more reflective approach. Smeyers does not argue for a choice between the two types, however, since complex strategies of research on the one hand and techniques that simplify the complexity of reality on the other hand, are often combined. Smeyers posits that Western society has a tradition of knowing, a specific relation with truth, according to which both the intuitive Morse-type and the scientific CSI-type – who uses statistics, to give one important example of exact science – have their value.

As a result, the ideals of objectivity […] and rationality that, since the Enlightenment, have characterized our understanding of reality may be seen as indicative of an unwillingness to live with complexity. Humans not only long for knowledge (to know how things are, for instance ‘Is this a tenor characterizing a particular voice?’ or ‘How long will I be in the traffic jam?’ – incidentally, knowledge of that kind does not shorten the time), they also seem to have an insatiable need to gain control over the world. […] When looking at crime stories we saw that statistics can take us down the right road. Their attraction lies in the fact that they make things simpler and answer a ‘human all too human need’ to get some kind of grip on reality. (Smeyers, 2010, p. 175)

For Smeyers, research is less about different approaches than about a common, intrinsic need to “bring some order to the chaos” (Smeyers, 2010, p. 163). With his article he wants to bring to our attention the centrality of knowledge to our desire for control. He warns, however, that “knowing too much may push other aspects out of the way. […] Too much particularity thus turns out to be potentially dangerous” (Smeyers, 2010, p. 172). He ponders this idea as he describes how in a particular detective story the investigator decides to stop looking for the truth as “he is willing to accept no for an answer in view of the greater good” (Smeyers, 2010, p. 171), as seeking “to do justice ‘for its own sake’” would create another “‘injustice’ [that] would result from further efforts to clear things up completely” (Smeyers, 2010, p. 171). It could be said that this particular police detective chooses to stop relating to the role he has to fulfil. He stops looking for the truth and stops following the procedures he is supposed to hold on to.

A Deleuzian reading of the character of the traditional police detective

The character of the traditional police detective seems to fit into Deleuze’s taxonomy of film characters that appear respectively in the documentary, the Western, the psycho-social film, the film noir and the historical film. Deleuze discusses these characters in his study The Movement-Image, in the chapter on the action-image (Deleuze, 1986, pp. 141-159). In the Realism of American cinema and its international followers, milieu and mode of behaviour govern the characters (Deleuze, 1986, p. 141). Like the Eskimo in Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922), the cowboy in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962), the criminal in Hawks’ Scarface (Hawks, 1932), the Blacks or Whites in Street Scene (Vidor, 1931) and Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939), the traditional police detective is acted upon by milieu in the sense that murders come his way as a challenge which he has to solve:

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 […] 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. (Deleuze, 1986, pp. 141-142)

The traditional police detective is part of what Deleuze describes as an SAS’ structure: a Situation requires Action which leads to a new, restored Situation. However, Deleuze states that this kind of “cinema of behaviour is not content with a simple sensory-motor formula” (Deleuze, 1986, p. 158) and that characters in films that have an SAS’ structure are “deeply and continuously permeated by the situation and the milieu they are in” (Deleuze, 1986, p. 155). The traditional police detective, then, is permeated by the murder like a membrane is permeated by a liquid. The murder takes possession of the police detective as he must go through moments of impotence where he is waiting and enduring the violence. At home, for example, he stares with disgust and sadness at the pictures of the crime scene. However, this character must also explode, that is, act upon the whole he is a part of. His actions can be impulsive (the detective sees someone running away and goes after him) or well thought-out (the detective strategically prepares the interrogation of a suspect). “A great ‘global mission’, SAS’, is divided into successive and continuous ‘local missions’ (s1, a1, s2, a2, s3 …)” (Deleuze, 1986, p. 157). Finding the culprit thus consists of a multitude of permeations on the one hand and actions that succeed each other on the other hand. Like the different roads Deleuze’s characters described above have to remake according to the specific laws their worlds oppose on them, the traditional police detective ultimately becomes capable of actions that turn him into the truthful man who catches the culprit. There is, however, the possibility of another kind of researcher. It is not someone who tries to disrupt a cyclic order of knowledge and techniques. Neither is it someone who chooses to stop relating to traditions of knowledge, techniques and methods. It is a researcher who does not challenge the character of the traditional police detective as related to the figure of the researcher, but at the same time cannot be identified with this position.


Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

To discuss this type of researcher we would like to present Pharaon (figure 1), the main character of the film L’humanité. With this film Dumont introduces the classical detective story, but only to create an escape. Dumont shows a crime, launches the question “who is the perpetrator?” and at the end of the film shows us the face of the killer. With lieutenant Pharaon Dewinter as the police detective in charge of the investigation, however, detective stories haul in a Pyrrhic victory. Dumont has as little interest in showing an organic detective story, as he is in showing ‘life as it is’ in a small town in Northern France. He seems, on the other hand, to be interested in setting up a fiction in which all the characters behave normally, except Pharaon, who responds to the violence in a specific way. From a scientific point of view, we are at risk of ridicule when we elect to see this type of  character as an inspiration for the figure of the human researcher. From a psychological, juridical or pragmatic point of view, we can only understand Pharaon as an idiot. As a police detective he staggers on the edge of incompatibility and there may be trauma involved that he has not yet overcome, since the film mentions a past in which he had a wife and child. Pharaon’s gaze might be psychologised as a sign of his weakness to cope with the everyday. It might be said that unlike the CSI-type or the Morse-type, he lacks the backbone of an investigator who has intuition, connections with important people, knowledge, methods … In short, the expertise, attitude and agency that makes someone a successful police detective. Or a successful researcher. What follows are a few descriptions of Pharaon’s actions that will allow us to explore why he might be productively discussed as a human researcher. Something has happened: the rape and murder of a girl (figure 2 & 3). But then there is also the way society deals with this occurrence. There is an inhumanity that pushes Pharaon to do certain things:

Figure 4 – 6. Pharaon walking. Not just to get some fresh air. He treads a field, we hear him gasp and we see him moving from screen left to screen right. The wind powerfully blows in the microphone that registers his breath. He climbs over a wired fence, steps through a ploughed field and falls down. He stares into nothingness. With his body he seems to enter into a dialogue with the earth he rests upon (Sojcher, 2008, p. 173). We do not know what moves him. We do not know his inner world. But we clearly see that he does not just walk or that his position on the ground is merely a coincidence. His presence in that field is not accidental. Pharaon is present in the particularity of that field.

Figure 7. Pharaon cycles. He covers a certain distance. He climbs up a hill and saliva drops from his mouth. He pants heavily. Once up the hill he looks back on the road he came from. He continues downhill, cycles without using his hands and enjoys the descent.

Figure 8. He watches the beads of sweat on the body of his boss. He stares at the neck and the trousers, which seem too tight in the crotch.

Figure 9 – 10. He has an allotment where he grows vegetables and flowers. We see him duck and grab hold of a lump of earth. He waters his plants and smells his flowers. After a shocking visit to a mental hospital, we see him standing in his garden on a small platform. He looks at the world. He closes his eyes. He is standing still for a very long time.

Figure 11. During the interrogation of a drug dealer he approaches the arrested person and smells his face, holding the person close to him for a long period of time. Sitting at his desk he sniffs the hand that just a minute ago lay on the man’s cheek.

Figure 12. He sits on his bed crying. He watches the outside landscape from his bedroom. He goes downstairs and puts the television on. We see images of human misery. Pharaon strikes the notes of an electric piano but he plays no song, he merely produces sounds. He hums and makes noises with his throat and stomach.

Figure 13-16. One day the investigation leads Pharaon to the crime scene. He brought flowers with him and lays them down at the spot where the girl was murdered. He pauses for a moment after which he screams and starts running in the field. He runs towards a fence and holds on to it. He looks to his right. A high-speed train races by close to his face. He screams as if to compete with the sound and the wind, the power of the train.

While cycling, shouting, pushing his hand against the school bus that drove the girl to the place she was attacked, by running and walking, by producing sounds … He uses the self in a non-intellectual, physical and emotional way. His body touches the world instead of trying to understand it. Pharaon seems to have an incapacity to not be exposed to any-reality-whatsoever and this seems to be related to the rape and murder of the young girl. Events have a particular intensity and work on Pharaon’s self. When, at the beginning of the film, he is informed about the murder, he lowers his head and hides his face. He literally has to sit down and support his head. To be exposed to the world like Pharaon, is dangerous. He seems to be pregnant of what happened. “It is horrible”, he says to his superior, who immediately responds by pointing out his duty as a policeman to catch whoever committed this crime. Yet Pharaon is too much overpowered by evil to immediately think about solving the case. It seems as if he absorbs evil in his look and is not capable anymore of doing the things he should do as a police officer. It is true that at that time he is immobilized and that the news of the rape and murder of the girl is too powerful for him. But it would be mistaken to think he breaks down, although the inhumanity seems to physically hurt him. The crime does not lead Pharaon into madness or escaping daily life and neglecting his responsibility as a police detective entrusted with the investigation. Nevertheless, he does not solve the crime. At the end of the film, the murderer is arrested by other police detectives the audience never gets to see. Pharaon nonetheless relates himself to the crime, which imposes itself on him. During the film we see him carrying the murder with him during his every-day activities. He is full of what he sees and this we should interpret quite literally.

Deleuze’s Character of the Forger

It is clear that Dumont’s cinema, which does not lend itself to easy conceptualisation, is made in response to the organic Realism of American cinema, specifically the laws of the traditional police detective story as described in the first part of this article. He uses the genre, but only to go somewhere else. Deleuze’s distinction between the organic cinema of the agent and the cinema of the seer imposes itself when we compare the traditional police who acts according to a certain road that presents itself, and Pharaon who sees and already in the opening scene makes clear he does not rhyme with the act of remaking a familiar road. An important aspect of Pharaon in this regard is his specific gaze. It is almost like a tool that cuts into what he sees. It is difficult to interpret a gaze, but we do not see it as an interior gaze of someone who is locked up in his own self or who is daydreaming. Rather, he is aware of the fact that he is present in the space and time he is in, which leads him to a state in which he is not protected from the particular place he is in. What’s more, it seems he allows this place to work on him. With his gaze he seems to be waiting for the world to give him an order. More precisely, as meaning does not come from interiority, God or some tradition of knowledge, Pharaon has to try to create meaning from within himself, but only through exteriority, that is, through the material world. Pharaon’s gaze seems to be the human gaze Jean-Luc Nancy writes about:

So the eye, which up until then had done nothing but perceive things, discovers itself seeing. It sees this: that it sees. It sees that it sees there: it sees that there is something of the world that shows itself. (Nancy, 1996, p. 79)

With Pharaon we have a model for an alternative researcher who is not, however, just an unorthodox police detective. Neither can we characterize him in academic terms as the intellectual rebel. In fact, Pharaon never stops relating to his role of traditional police detective. At one point in the narrative he has to guard the town hall as factory strikers demand to speak to the mayor. His female neighbour, with whom he has an intimate relationship, participates in the strike and tries to convince Pharaon to let them enter the building. He pushes her away from him and clearly puts his foot down, convincing the workers they will not get past him. Although he hovers on the brink of incompetence, he never really breaks with the realism of murder and the ways of society to keep that violence under control through justice. There is, however, no sensory-motor link. No s1, a1, s2, a2, s3 … is possible. The scene in L’humanité in which Joseph, one of the main characters of the film, is revealed to be the person who has committed the crime, gives strong indication that L’humanité has altogether abandoned the truthful man ideal by moulding the police detective character into what Deleuze and Guattari call a line of flight, which can generally be understood as a creative movement away from standardization. The most important moment for the truthful man is always near the end of the film, when society sees, and more importantly, acknowledges the face of the killer. It is what the organic system pushes towards with double force: through permeation of the injustice that torments and prepares the hero on the one hand and through the actions of the hero on the other hand. When, near the end of L’humanité, the camera reveals the face of Joseph as the face of the murderer, it’s ridiculous to say that it was Joseph! and that we knew it all along. What blocks this thought is Pharaon’s character who unbalances the system of judgement the narration refers to (Deleuze, 1989, p. 133). With Pharaon ‘the truthful man dies, every model of truth collapses’ (Deleuze, 1989, p. 131). Obviously not the ordinary police detective, Pharaon can be interpreted as a forger, the character of Deleuze’s time-image. Deleuze uses the forger not as a con-man, a traditional character in American cinema like, for instance, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Frank Abagnale Junior in the film Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002). Deleuze uses the character of the forger in the sense that he “assumes an unlimited figure which permeates the whole film” and “provokes undecidable alternatives and inexplicable differences between the true and the false” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 132). What Deleuze suggests is that in certain films, stereotypical characters can be forged and thus used for a different purpose. With Pharaon, Dumont forges the traditional police detective through a doubling. Pharaon does everyday things: he cycles, he walks, he does what his boss tells him to do, he goes to the grocery store with his mother … At the same time he clearly embodies the abnormal: he ‘kisses’ the murderer, he screams at a train, he smells the cheek of a criminal. Everyday banality and Pharaon’s strange behaviour alternate and substitute each other. Enlarging Pharaon’s abnormality even further would have made him too unrealistic, too much ‘out of character’ to still take this film seriously. Pharaon walks and speaks slowly for example, but not too slow, which would have pushed the film over into burlesque. Dumont pushes Pharaon to the limits of what the spectator will accept. The real and the imaginary have become indiscernible, and the milieu of the police detective is a perfect platform to start from, as it is connected to truth. A researcher is born, however, who in a non-intellectual way embodies Deleuze’s and Guattari’s line of flight from that truth. This should not be understood as an escape from reality and the realism of judicial theory and practice. Pharaon is a forger, who transforms the figure of the police detective into someone who cannot be identified with the role he has to play, someone who “is continually becoming another” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 152) because of the violence done to a little girl. Pharaon’s gaze passively distorts order; it does not imply that finding the culprit is a ridiculous undertaking, but augments that logic by positing that there is alwayssomething of the world that shows itself, out of order and not in any direct relation to the organic world. Dumont illustrates this by answering Pharaon’s gaze; the camera always presents what Pharaon was just looking at. We see a field, a street, a couple having sex, the sweat in the neck of Pharaon’s boss … While the violence pushes the traditional police detective into solving the crime, Pharaon starts researching something else. It is humanity itself that through this crime becomes a question for Pharaon, as he represents and inserts an ethos that does not know how to deal with this violence. Pharaon does not oppose the remaking of the road of justice, but has become pregnant of this violence and goes into a very different kind of research. The violence turns the everyday into a field of research in relation to humanity.

So what does this mean for the Figure of the Researcher?

Within the scope of this article and the question of what the detective story can mean to discuss the notion of research, we argue that Pharaon is inspirational because he forges the character of the traditional police detective. The researcher we put forward is not someone who refuses to participate in traditions of knowledge and methods that belong to his or her field of interest. This is a figure who expresses a certain concern for his community. The human researcher, however, who articulates humanity in other ways than by trying to bring order in the chaos. He is not someone who actively disrupts order, the way an anarchist disrupts the politics of a country. In the first place, he is someone who exposes the self to the world. On the other hand, L’humanité is not about Pharaon’s ego or internal self. It is about what we see because of Pharaon’s presence. Pharaon’s continuous becoming stems from the becoming-researcher of this person. At the same time, his presence launches a becoming-Pharaon of the principles of research. Through Pharaon’s exposure to inhumanity, a question arises. The violence becomes an invitation to answer the question, “what is humanity?” This humanity receives its shape through mixing the everyday Pharaon is a part of with the abnormal that originates from his presence in the ordinary. Pharaon’s exposure to inhumanity creates a line of flight away from The Truth towards the intensities of the place and time he is in. And in that experience humanity always has to create itself. In the same sense, human research is not about the researcher, but about what becomes visible through the presence of the researcher who responds to a particularity of the world.


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