Slack Bay

 

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Bruno Dumont’s latest film, however infuriating, demands attention.

 

Slack Bay

  

What a strong range of contradictory impressions are created by this new film from French writer/director Bruno Dumont. Usually the most austere of contemporary filmmakers, he surprised us in 2014 by producing something very different in P’tit Quinquin. That was made as a mini-series for television but then released as a film. Slack Bay, shown in France under the title Ma Loute, is very much a companion piece, but one definitely envisaged for cinema. However, both works are absurdist comedies involving a murder investigation while touching too on social issues.

 

This time around two incompetent detectives living on France’s north-west coast are looking into the baffling disappearance of visitors to the area. Dumont in creating these characters was paying homage to Laurel and Hardy, but even so the case that they are handling proves to be one involving cannibalism. The guilty parties are a family of fisherfolk whose working-class background in this tale set in 1910 is portrayed very realistically. In contrast another family, the aristocratic Van Peteghems who keep a mansion in the area for holiday visits, are presented satirically and an excessively grotesque tone is adopted here. However, an unexpected link comes about when Ma Loute, the eldest child of the abductors, is attracted by the androgynous Billie Van Peteghem who claims to be a girl who likes dressing as a boy.

 

Slack Bay is a bizarre mix and, when talking about it, Dumont sounds confident that its social aspect will yield pride of place to the comic. To my mind, it doesn’t. The Laurel and Hardy parallel only serves to underline how unfunny Dumont’s detectives are, while other slapstick moments (Dumont also cites silent cinema’s Max Linder as an influence) fall flat. One case of levitation late on, whether meant to amuse or not, is just an oddity; a second in the last few minutes seems plain silly and this failure to reach a telling conclusion adds to our awareness that at 122 minutes the film is far too long.

 

These defects might suggest that we are dealing with a total disaster here, but not so. The casting, ranging from big names (Luchini, Binoche, Bruni Tedeschi) to non-professionals (Brandon Lavieville as Ma Loute and Raph as Billie), is absolutely perfect. The performances, given what Dumont requires, are spot on. The colour photography by Guillaume Deffontaines is magnificent. The use of sound, including music taken from the work of the Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu, is finely judged. Indeed, for all its defects, Slack Bay is a film that could only have been made by a master of cinema. The comedy may fail, but the social comment is sharp and valid and offers some justification for what is undoubtedly the oddest film of the year so far. In any case, those prepared to enjoy filmmaking for its own sake will find here much to relish.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Jean-Luc Vincent, Brandon Lavieville, Raph, Didier Després, Cyril Rigaux, Thierry Lavieville, Caroline Carbonnier, Manon Royère.

 

Dir Bruno Dumont, Pro Jean Bréhat, Rachid Bouchareb and Muriel Merlin, Screenplay Bruno Dumont, Ph Guillaume Deffontaines, Art Dir Riton Dupire-Clément, Ed Bruno Dumont and Basile Belkhiri, Costumes Alexandra Charles.

 
38 Productions/Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion/Pallas Film/ARTE France Cinéma/Canal Plus/Ciné Plus-New Wave Films.
122 mins. France/Germany/Belgium. 2016. Rel: 16 June 2017. Cert. 15.