From his debut film, La Vie de Jésus, through to the Juliette Binoche led Camille Claudel 1915, French director Bruno Dumont has built a firm reputation for examining the bleaker side of human existence. This made the release of the absurdly hilarious P'tit Quinquin feel like a breath of fresh air, a head-scratching shift which was as welcome as it was confusing. Not satisfied by surprising almost everyone with this overt change in tone, Dumont’s latest release, Slack Bay, continues in the same ridiculous vein, populating his world with an equally strange array of bold and over-the-top caricatures.
In many ways this feels like an extension of the world created in P'tit Quinquin only this time taking place in an earlier period. Similarly set on the coastline of Northern France, what can once again be found beyond the farcical performances and slapstick humour is a discussion on a wider set of themes, lifting the lid on gender, class and wealth. Humour was never completely absent from Dumont’s earlier films but he has made the conscious decision to leave the farcical dial on full blast for the past few years. Similarly, his obsession with the darker aspects of life have hardly evaporated either, much of which forms the bedrock for this eccentric comedy.
Binoche teams up once again with Dumont, starring as Aude Van Peteghem, arriving at the coastal home of her brother, André (Fabrice Luchini) and his upper-class family. Down on the beachfront the Laurel and Hardy of policeman, a rather rotund fella named Inspector Machin (Didier Després) and his sidekick, Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), fumble around failing to solve the mystery behind the ongoing disappearances in the area. Not that this remains much of a riddle for the audience, with the culprits clearly identified as L'Eternel (Thierry Lavieville) and his son Ma Loute Brufort (Brandon Lavieville) who snatch, dissect and then feed on unsuspecting visiting tourists, sharing the feast with their poverty stricken family.
A love story develops between Ma Loute (which is the original French title) and Billie (Raph), one of Andrés daughters, who dresses as a boy, which repulses the hapless police investigators who believe they are seeing a gay relationship develop and disgusts the bourgeoisie tendencies of the Van Peteghems. They are both outsiders in their families, attracted to each other for that very reason, hoping companionship will allow them to become more than their individual lives have afforded them so far. It becomes a sweet romance that gives the film some heart, especially when set against the harshly defined stereotypes of their respective families.
The plot is mostly a device used by Dumont to bring this opposing set of characters together to illustrate the obscene levels of ugliness they share, in spite of their stark financial divide. As always, Dumont pairs professional actors, such as Binoche and Luchini, with first time performers, who on this occasion make up the father and son roles in the Brufort family. For that reason their lines are limited but Dumont has an excellent eye for finding people whose unconventional looks tell a story all of their own, just as the constantly twitching face of Commandant Van der Weyden or the naturally mischievous look of P'tit Quinquin did in his previous film.
As brash and obnoxious as Aude Van Peteghem’s laugh may be, and no matter how many times Inspector Machin falls to the floor (which is lot) Dumont appears to trap these people into the confines of the scenic shoreline. The broad beach landscapes, towering cliff edges and windswept channel waters serve to place each of these immaculately designed characters into a framework they seem destined to exist within forever. And maybe that's Dumont's point after all, that we are destined to share our worst traits, no matter how divided our beliefs and social status may be, so why not just play it up and laugh at each other while we can?