Slack Bay Review
If we hadn't already seen what Bruno Dumont could so with the TV mini-series format in P'tit Quinquin (L'il Quinquin), you might suspect that his latest venture into mainstream broad comedy might be a bit of a sell-out for the director of such extreme and uncompromising works of gruelling philosophical meditation as L'Humanité and Hors Satan. Don't be fooled however by the presence of big-name French movie stars in Slack Bay (original French title, Ma Loute); Dumont's latest film is just as subversive as ever and firmly within his usual subject matter - just with extra laughs.
Other than remaining within Dumont's home region of Flanders and the North Coast of France, Slack Bay - a period drama and a comedy - could on the surface hardly be further away from the director's usual working methods. Rather than using non-professional actors, many with some form of mental or physical impairment, Dumont's latest film stars such big names of French cinema as Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. There's even an actual script and a plot here rather than the usual sober reflections on nature, spirituality and the dark side of human nature in a script pared down to a bare minimum of dialogue.
It doesn't take too long however to recognise that there's going to be nothing conventional about the acting or the plot of Slack Bay. The professional actors play the wealthy elite of the Van Peteghem family who have arrived at their family holiday home - an Egyptian styled mansion called the Typhonium - on the Opal Coast near Calais in the year 1910. The local mussel collectors of the Bréfort family who ferry holiday makers across the channels in the bay meanwhile are played by Dumont's usually colourful selection of non-professionals. The characters, every one of them, are far from what you would regard as normal or even naturalistic in their behaviour and expression, and with perhaps one exception, they're not particularly likeable either.
Dumont's ambivalent view of humanity is again in evidence and it's hard to reconcile his undoubted affection for these caricatured figures to any accepted politically correct view of them. Whether it's the bourgeoisie or the common people, Dumont allows them to behave eccentrically, one through ostentatious gestures and loud exclamation the other through sullen mumbles and mangled vowels. There's evidence of inbreeding or at least a restricted gene-pool in both classes, and in the case of the lower orders, well, let's just say that their eating habits leave something to be desired.
As for the plot, well, there's not much of one, and what there is of it is hardly conventional. Like several of Dumont's films - from L'Humanité to P'tit Quinquin - there is a murder-mystery element and a police investigation (with a very unconventional lead detective), but one whose purpose evidently extends far beyond simply finding a solution to the crime. Here in Slack Bay, tourists are disappearing from the popular tourist destination, but no bodies have been found. The two detectives in charge of the investigation, Machin and Malfoy, have something of an appearance of Laurel and Hardy. The overweight Machin is prone to falling down a lot complete with rubbery inflatable sound effects, and the duo seem no more competent and capable of getting to the bottom of the mystery than Stan and Olly. Against this setting an unlikely summer romance blossoms between human ferry Ma Loute Bréfort and the cross-dressing, gender ambiguous Billie from the aristocratic Van Peteghem family.
Unsurprisingly, the plot is not entirely the point of the film or of primary interest to Bruno Dumont, so what you get from it might depend on how familiar you are with or tolerant of the director's previous work. Slack Bay does seem to be designed to capitalise on and reach the much wider audience that Dumont has gained after the phenomenal success of his P'tit Quinquin TV series in France, but as various supernatural occurrences take place, some of them related to a shrine to Our Lady on the bay, it becomes clear that Dumont is exploiting the opportunity of the genre and the new audience to take a fresh approach to familiar preoccupations. Those all come back to an exploration of the mystical and spiritual force of the relationship between the land and the people of this region, with the sea also an important part of the equation here.
The "mainstream" comedy of Slack Bay is Dumont's way of approaching these familiar themes from a new angle and through new techniques to see whether they can be pushed to further extremes that shock as much as they delight. Some will be appalled at the depictions of local bumpkins as much as surprised by the untypically wild overacting of Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini and wrong-footed by the unsophisticated reliance on slapstick for humour, but it's all part of Dumont's alienation techniques, putting a barrier between the audience and the characters that challenges the viewer to confront and overcome their own prejudices and expectations.
There's unquestionably a great deal of amusement to be derived from this mixture of the sacred and the profane, between the slapstick and the humour, between the mainstream concessions and the philosophical pretensions of Slack Bay, but only if you are 'in' on the joke. The jarring juxtapositions of the new film do present an unusual twist on the familiar Dumont experience and there is much that delights in this provocative comedy, but it's hard to see that it really extends the range of the director's outlook in the way of his previous feature Camille Claudel 1915, or produce the kind of epiphany revealed by the extraordinary L'il Quinquin. What remains impressive however is that Dumont is still willing to experiment and take risks, and from such a director that's always going to be worthwhile.