Slack Bay (Ma Loute)

France (2016) Dir. Bruno Dumont

I’ve only seen three films from Bruno Dumont and they were all bleak, heavy dramas, so it was a surprise to learn that he had made a comedy. Could the man responsible for the intense heartbreaking darkness of biopic Camille Claudel 1915 and the religion bating of Hors Satan and Hadewijch really have a sense of humour? At the risk of sounding cruel, watching this absurdist belle époque offering still leaves that question unanswered.

Set in 1910 in the titular coastal province, the wealthy Van Peteghem family from inland Tourcoing take annual breaks there in their holiday home, the Typhonium. But this year they arrive as a spate of mysterious disappearances of tourists to the area are baffling the police.

And that is the plot. No really, this skeletal concept is supposedly geared to keeping the audience glued to the screen for two hours – that and the wilfully obtuse Gallic humour courtesy of the cast of rather grotesque caricatures. To be fair, there are glimmers of a social satire in there targeting the class system and a subplot regarding genre identity otherwise the script feels like the result of Dumont writing whilst suffering a concussion.

Humour is always going to be a subjective thing and surreal, esoteric humour is a much harder sell although many inroads were made through the success of Spike Milligan and Monty Python. Flashes of their influence can be found in Slack Bay but with a distinctly French interpretation – and if anyone is good at surrealism it is the French; just a shame so much of it is impenetrable for many of us.

Dumont opens his film with the Brufort family collecting washed up mussels in the sand, the eldest son Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) keen to be somewhere else. On their way home, they pass the Van Peteghem’s arriving for their annual summer holiday, their lavish, well-groomed appearance immediately at odds with the indigent scruffiness of the Brufort clan.

The Van Peteghens are comprised of gormless hunched backed André (Fabrice Luchini), snobby wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and their two daughters (Lauréna Thellier and Manon Royère). Also brought along for the trip is niece Billie (Raph), who alternates between dressing as a boy and a girl to the confusion of everyone. Billie’s mother Aude (Juliette Binoche) arrives later, as does Isabelle’s brother Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent).

It is revealed that Isabelle is André’s cousin once removed whilst Christian is her older brother and her cousin and with Aude being André’s sister she has a convoluted part in this incestuous web too. André actually suggests it’s all good as it creates an “industrial” family; it certainly would explain the inherent bizarre behaviour they all share.

Dumont’s satirical knife is clearly out for the bourgeois families of the belle époque, as if the overly affected characterisations weren’t a clear enough indicator of how they should be perceived. In contrast to the gaudy wardrobe, mod cons and bespoke cooked meals, the Brufords, live in apparent squalor but seem content with their lot, but they hide a darker side to them.

Ma Loute and his father (Thierry Lavieville) make modest money ferrying posh tourists across a marsh, then, when the coast is metaphorically clear, they kill them, take the bodies home, and eat them with the rest of the family. There is a cute gag in the fact they have boat to ferry their passengers but physically carry them across instead, a rare Python-esque idea that works until it is overplayed.

When Ma Loute meets Billie, a mutual attraction is formed. At this point Billie is dressed as a girl, but the next time we see her she is dressed like a boy and no-one can tell the difference – even mother Aude refers to Billie as her “son” when she is dressed like this. Billie refers to herself as “a girl dressed as a boy” but hides a masculine haircut beneath a long haired wig.

Interestingly, there is little comedy inspired by this, the most “modern” of the themes featured in this film, but lest we forget that androgyny was a foible of the bourgeois during this period. To keep the illusion going, the performer in the role of Billie is listed as “Raph” which tells us nothing but aside from the nuanced essaying of this character, Raph makes for a striking young woman and a handsomely effete boy.

Finally, we must mention the two policemen in charge of solving this mystery, the Laurel and Hardy tribute act of morbidly obese police chief Machin (Didier Després) and pasty-faced sidekick Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux). Machin walks with an uncomfortable squelch due to his excessive girth with Malfoy his put upon fall guy, tasked with picking up his rotund senior whenever he falls over which is a lot.

By now it might appear as if I’ve done a spectacular job in piquing your interest and selling you the ides to seek this film out ASAP. This is completely inadvertent because as good as it sounds on paper, in execution it is a complete mess. The gags are either too subtle or simply non-existent – for example, the lampooning of the upper classes is fine but too dense to have any resonance as a satire.  

The two hour run time certainly isn’t justified, the ideas running out steam at the halfway mark, and there is no real sense that any of it amounts to anything. If there is, it is still in Dumont’s mind somewhere, along with the substance of the script because little of made it onto the screen.

Dumont is fortunate his A-list cast deliver in their roles – Binoche in full pantomime mode is a delight – but Slack Bay lacks the elements to deliver something entertaining. Some will get this film, some won’t, and some will say they get it to avoid looking foolish for not getting it. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to, I just didn’t get it.