It has only been several years since Juliette Binoche last starred in a Bruno Dumont film, but Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) is so different to the director’s latest, Slack Bay, that it could be the work of a completely different film-maker. The artist, once catalogued by critics as a contributor to ‘New French Extremism,’ alongside other transgressive directors like Gaspar Noé, has moved away from the explicit ultra-violence of his earlier works to reveal himself as one with a distinctive comedic voice.
Li’l Quinquin (2014) was the first indication that Dumont had something different to show. The farcical detective story was an unlikely digression for the director, but one that showed that, much like Roy Andersson, he has a unique way of finding the ridiculous in the everyday. The film hung onto reality by a thread, introducing cows stuffed with dead body parts and an investigator clueless enough to make it seem like he had just wandered into the story from a nearby field.
Dumont takes these eccentricities even further with Slack Bay, a film that at times moves beyond slapstick into the fantastical. It is another detective story, albeit one with cannibals, miracles, and floating constabulary. Talking about the film, Dumont said, ‘I wanted to move visibly further away from the supposed naturalism that people have always conferred on my work, despite myself.’ The choice to abandon the mundane, then, was a conscious one for the director, who was ready to abandon the severe tone of his early work to find where this peculiar new path would take him.
The plot, when related in simple terms, sounds relatively mundane. In the summer of 1910, the mysterious disappearance of several tourists sets tongues wagging in the well-to-do beachfront villas of France’s Channel Coast. A couple of inept police detectives are called in to investigate. Witness to the case are the rich folk in the mansions above Slack Bay, and on the other side, the poorer families who make a living ferrying tourists across the water.
The Van Peteghems are one of the bourgeois families summering at their coastal mansion. André Van Peteghem (Fabrice Luchini) is the bumbling patriarch of the family, a man who seems to spend as much time on the floor as he does on his feet. His wife, Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), is as meek as her husband is dim-witted, but his sister Aude (Juliette Binoche), on the other hand, provides some balance with her outrageous taste for the dramatic.
If Slack Bay is a reinvention of Bruno Dumont as a director, it is equally transformative for Juliette Binoche. This star of world cinema, who we’re so used to seeing in bleak, weighty dramas like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, is unlike we’ve ever seen her before on screen.
She takes the character of Aude Van Peteghem, a fantastic comic creation, and amplifies her to such melodramatic proportions that it would seem ridiculous were it not for the oddness that unfolds around her. She is in a constant swoon, always in shock at the unfairness of the world, taking breaks from her self-pity only to fire barbs at the rest of her family. Her melodrama reaches its peak with a prolonged crying fit in the parlour, with André looking on uneasily, and a tremulous aria sung from the roof of the mansion, out to sea.
The slapstick of Slack Bay is somewhat alienating, at first. It’s the kind of film that rarely gets made these days, a comedy that wants to emulate – or at least evoke – the physicality of geniuses like Buster Keaton and Pierre Étaix, but which is ever in danger of missing the mark with audiences as spectacularly as The Three Stooges remake (2012) did.
This is why, during the early part of the film, when every punchline seems to consist of someone falling over, the comedy doesn’t seem to have much depth. As Slack Bay progresses, though, the film’s eccentricities wash over you, until you can’t help but chuckle at the rotund inspector Machin (Didier Després) rolling down a sand dune.
Machin and his docile partner, Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), are the two hapless stars of the show. They bear a striking resemblance to Laurel and Hardy, and are about as useful when it comes to policing. But this is a standard of detective fiction, a useless police force following all the wrong clues and impeding the investigations of the real hero.
There is no detective hero in Slack Bay, no one chasing down the murderers responsible for the disappearing tourists. We find out quite early, however, that the Bruforts (the ferrymen’s family) may have something to do with it, and the fact that their involvement should be easily deduced by a detective of any merit makes Machin seem all the more inept.
The film’s French title, Ma Loute, is taken from the name of one of the principal characters, a dim-witted young man who causes confusion every time he tells someone his name. ‘What does it mean,’ they ask him. ‘Dunno. Just me name,’ he tells them. This sense of confusion adequately describes the feeling that many will have towards Slack Bay. You might often be tempted to ask what it all means, especially when events take a surreal turn towards the end. There lies danger, though, because thinking about it might render you as slack-jawed as Ma Loute Brufort.
It would not be a Bruno Dumont film without a dash of tragedy. In the picaresque Li’l Quinquin, the character of Quinquin was himself a tragic anti-hero, a young boy trapped in the muddy drudge of his backwards rural life.
In Slack Bay, tragedy follows young Billie Van Peteghem (Raph) wherever they go. The pronoun is intentionally vague, as Billie frequently shifts between male and female identities, eventually catching the eye of Ma Loute and striking up a romance with him (Ma Loute takes Billie for a girl). Billie is an outsider in a family full of outsiders, an unhappy child who takes any opportunity to be away from Aude’s petulance and André’s staggering inanity.
Billie, though, remains an enigmatic figure, a largely silent hero(ine). This is probably Slack Bay’s greatest shortfall (for me, anyway – many will undoubtedly be put off by the constant pratfalling), that its characters all start shallow and never really gain any more depth. Perhaps this is apt enough; this bourgeois family of halfwits consider themselves masters of culture, but all they are really good for are spectacular falls from deckchairs. Like Ma Loute’s name – and like Slack Bay in general – there’s nothing much to it. It all seems like great fun, though.
Original Title: Ma Loute Country: France, Germany, Belgium Language: French, English Year: 2016 Director: Bruno Dumont Writer: Bruno Dumont Starring: Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, Brando Lavieville Runtime: 122 minutes
L’il Quinquin (2014) – Bruno Dumont’s first foray into comedy took audiences and critics alike by surprise. It was a unique creation, a farcical detective story strung out over several episodes. It set the tone for Slack Bay, which went even further with its eccentric slapstick comedy.