Film Review: Slack Bay

In Bruno Dumont’s pummeling, surrealist slapstick film, a dizzily campy Juliette Binoche leads a daffy bourgeois clan vacationing in a coastal village plagued by disappearances who resolutely refuse to take the hint.
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We might be in a golden age of comedy, but—excepting Armando Iannucci (“Veep”)—satire has been keeping its head down of late. Particularly hard to find have been artists intent on waging slash-and-burn class warfare instead of winking jabs at social mores. Given the Gilded Age levels of inequality, the time would appear to be ripe. So it’s refreshing in a way to see Bruno Dumont eagerly take up the atrophied tradition of epater la bourgeoisie in Slack Bay. It’s a rather diabolically unfunny catastrophe, but at least Dumont is openly aiming his humor at something.

Captured with gleaming perfection by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, the disarmingly pretty setting is the French seaside town of Slack Bay, circa 1910. It’s a beautiful place, if one likes sand dunes, marshes, sweeping oceanic vistas, and doesn’t mind the occasional murder. In town for their annual summer getaway are the Van Peteghem family, a pack of inbred swells lazing around their hilltop villa designed “in the Ptolemaic style.” Fervent expostulators of delight at the most mundane things, André (Fabrice Luchini) and Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) are blind to just about everything, particularly the transgender status of their child Billie (Raph) and the practically psychopathic enthusiasm of André’s sister Aude (Juliette Binoche, operatically divine).

Down the slope and by the water are the dirt-poor Brufort clan of fishermen. The father, “The Eternal” (Thierry Lavieville), also makes money as a unique kind of ferryman: He carries people across the bay at low tide instead of rowing them in a boat. The teenage Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) is sharp-eyed and attentive, particularly when it comes to Billie. The animosity between the families is strictly one-way and mostly camouflaged behind convention: The Van Peteghems can’t imagine that anybody would hate them, even after their motorcar practically runs the Bruforts off the road. “Mussel gatherers! How picturesque!” blurts Isabelle even as Ma Loute snarls in their wake.

This kind of obliviousness in the face of danger or outright hatred is a recurring trope through the influence-riddled Slack Bay. Dumont pulls heavily from Monty Python and Ionesco for his recurring scenes of the Van Peteghems, swaddled in a cocoon of privilege, blithely brushing past obvious dangers. Laurel and Hardy crop up in the similarly befuddled figures of Inspector Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux) and his partner Machin (Didier Després), investigating a series of disappearances. Blandly oblivious as the Van Peteghems, the inspectors toddle around and miss every clue dropped in front of them. Wandering in the rippling dunes under their black bowler hats and encountering one non sequitur after another, the two also call out to Magritte and his bumptious surrealism.

Dumont feels truly dedicated here to making a comedy. If not, the insistence on pratfalls and goofy sound cues (the voluminous and rotund Machin is a one-man factory of these) would feel like the work of a madman. To that end, seasoned performers like Luchini, Binoche and Tedeschi contort and vamp themselves into caricatures so exaggerated that they were probably outlawed at one point by the Geneva Convention. Binoche’s operatic hauteur in particular deserves to be acknowledged as a thing of beauty.

Slack Bay is a comedy, but in the Buñuel sense—meaning that every kind of human savagery is in play here, from incest to cannibalism and gay-bashing. In the interest of punching bourgeois complacency in the face, this satire takes risks that few modern comedies do. Dumont’s recipe of period-film postcard beauty, bestial violence, head-scratching surrealism, physical gags and blunt social commentary is a challenging mix, at the least.

That doesn’t mean it’s effective.

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