Getting physical with language

Bruno Dumont on comedy, fantasy, miracles and Slack Bay.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Bruno Dumont talks Ma Loute and his Cannes musical Jeannette l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc with Anne-Katrin Titze
Bruno Dumont talks Ma Loute and his Cannes musical Jeannette l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc with Anne-Katrin Titze Photo: Ellen Sowchek

Bruno Dumont's cathartic and fearlessly comical journey Slack Bay (Ma Loute) stars an expressive Fabrice Luchini, a daring Juliette Binoche, and a blushing Valeria Bruni Tedeschi with Raph, a bit reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett, an eternal Thierry Lavieville, Jean-Luc Vincent ("We know what to do, but we do not do"), a fascinated Brandon Lavieville, and the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy-like duo Cyril Rigaux and Didier Després.

The Van Peteghems - André (Fabrice Luchini), Aude (Juliette Binoche), Billie (Raph):
The Van Peteghems - André (Fabrice Luchini), Aude (Juliette Binoche), Billie (Raph): "You know, the way Juliette behaves, it's almost as though she is laughing at herself."

The Camille Claudel 1915 and Li'l Quinquin director's latest film Jeannette l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc (Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc), based on a text by Charles Péguy, has been selected to screen in the Directors' Fortnight program of the Cannes Film Festival.

On top of a cliff overlooking Slack Bay, in a villa in the Egyptian style, called the Typhonium, the wealthy Van Peteghem family spends their vacation. Patriarch André Van Peteghem is played by Fabrice Luchini, an actor who has proven in the past to be extremely good at demonstrating variations of shock and awe. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi plays his wife Isabelle, the one who truly experiences a miracle that includes the Virgin Mary and a loss of gravity.

Juliette Binoche, better and more daring than ever, is Aude, André Van Peteghem's sister. Her child Billie (Raph), switches effortlessly - and daily - between gender identifications. Christian Van Peteghem (Jean-Luc Vincent), Isabelle's brother, hands out his wisdoms, sometimes in impassioned English. Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), his father, called L'Eternel (Thierry Lavieville), and the rest of the local Brufort family behave in stark contrast to the bourgeois tourists who invade their coastal region. Language is intensely physical in Slack Bay.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your musical, your Jeanne d'Arc, will be at Cannes. Congratulations!

Bruno Dumont: Thank you!

AKT: Can you tell me anything about it?

Billie (Raph) with Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville):
Billie (Raph) with Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville): "In love there are certain expectations."

BD: It's a very new adventure for me. I wanted to do something new and I always liked musical comedies. So I wanted to do one. This musical is based on a text by [Charles] Péguy - who is a rather difficult writer. What the film does, by setting the text with music, it makes it easy to convey the poetry of the text. I think the viewers will hear the poetry. It's based around an eight-year-old girl. It has a lot of fantasy. It has trauma.

And the sound, the music, wasn't done with play-back process but was used using direct sound recording. This was something that was new for me, making a musical based on this text by Péguy, but using very modern music. Electronic pop is something that, I think, will be able to put his words into the ears of a much younger audience.

AKT: You set Slack Bay in 1910, so we are pre-World War I. Yet, there isn't a sense of innocence. It seems that the story is going back to ancient folktale tropes. They have cannibalism, incest, themes that have been around for a very long time. Can you talk about the placement in 1910?

Fabrice Luchini is André Van Peteghem:
Fabrice Luchini is André Van Peteghem: "Because they were making fun of themselves. There was some derision and there was some irony."

BD: I think my film is anachronistic even though it takes place at the beginning of the 20th century. It is in fact very timeless. I cannot film a film in a way that is timeless, so I have to set it in a particular time period. I always have to film something. But I have always filmed something to film something else. Also it's human nature that really interests me. So what I have to film is the person and how they act.

AKT: Watching your film, I became very much aware what most contemporary films don't show. How much has been thrown out in film history. It seems almost like a taboo to do a certain kind of comedy these days - comedy that is not sarcastic, that has a certain kind of jouissance, that isn't allowed anymore. It was great to see that in your film - it made my heart skip.

BD: Yes, I think for me, the burlesque I really like it. In French we call it "la tarte à la crème", the cream pie in the face kind of comedy. It's very simple but this is something that I really enjoy. Something that is very outmoded nowadays. It's a style of comedy that has no malice, no nastiness in it. And while I make fun of my characters, at the same time I really love my characters.

AKT: And at the same time you make us love them too. Despite lines like "Who wants more foot?" The genderqueer character of Billie and some of the over the top acting reminded me of Sylvia Scarlett, the1935 George Cukor film with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Slack Bay screens at the Quad Cinema in New York
Slack Bay screens at the Quad Cinema in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I think Cukor and Hepburn said they would make their next film for free because it was such a flop. I think it's marvelous and has that energy. Did you think of this film at all?

BD: I had no specific film references when making this film. I think with these characters there are certain expectations, especially when you have a romantic story. In love there are certain expectations. For example with Ma Loute, we know that he is on his way on the road to perdition.

But sometimes perdition can be something that's a good thing. I think with love stories it's always good to have this mysterious, mystifying aspect to them because it provokes suspense.

AKT: I was just so stunned. All of the actors are fantastic in this. Before seeing their performances, I wouldn't have thought how perfect the casting is. Even going back, looking at Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's Un château en Italie, and the religious component makes Slack Bay such a beautiful next step. For all of them.

BD: These are all actors who accept the ridiculous. And that's not easy. They were willing to be ridiculous. Very often you don't find this with actors because they are so concerned with their image and the way in which they're seen that they don't want to deviate from that in any way. It was really for Luchini, for Juliette, for Valeria, it was really a big step for all of them. Because they were making fun of themselves. There was some derision and there was some irony.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is André's wife Isabelle Van Peteghem:
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is André's wife Isabelle Van Peteghem: "These are all actors who accept the ridiculous. And that's not easy."

You know, the way Juliette behaves, it's almost as though she is laughing at herself. And in a way this can be shocking to the people in the audience who are her big fans because this isn't the way she normally is. She was willing to take that next step and go that far and to be funny in that way.

By making herself ridiculous, the very act of making yourself ridiculous, has an almost purifying quality to it. When you fall, you get up. It's not to say that it wasn't difficult for them. It was, because they were a little bit lost. They weren't on their marks, they lost control a little, so it was a bit difficult for them to work in this way.

AKT: Lovely line: “We know what to do, but we do not do.” Beautiful, especially because of the cut-off ending. I think, this is my favorite performance by Juliette Binoche in anything.

BD: You have to tell her!

Coming up - Bruno Dumont on the gesture of carrying, postcards, the exaggerated language and snobbery of the bourgeoisie, Camille Claudel 1915, the lens of the grotesque, going beyond what is expected, and how "grace is really within the reach of all of us."

Slack Bay is in cinemas in the US.

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