Slack Bay


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Slack Bay
"The absurd exaggerations and the wild parishes of humor are completely original, never cruel, and attached to a physicality that is pure cinema." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Quite a number of folktales from around the world and over centuries, included elements of cannibalism (think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the ignorant father in The Juniper Tree, giants snacking on kids) or incest threats (Cinderella's cousins, the German Allerleirauh and the French Peau d'Âne).

The time is 1910 in Slack Bay, the setting a coastal region in the North of France where the Brufort family, mussel pickers by profession, live in their hovel. During the season, father L'Eternel (Thierry Lavieville) and oldest son Ma Loute (his name is also the original French title) transport tourists across the bay - sometimes in a rowboat, more often by carrying them over the water.

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In a villa in the Egyptian style, called the Typhonium, on top of a cliff, the wealthy Van Peteghem family spends their vacation. They, upon arrival ooh and aah at every wisteria and mussel. Every view is heavenly, the silliest detail divine - or so they say, to convince themselves and each other, because that is what a good bourgeois does as to not feel worthless.

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 on his expressive face. Here he goes further. And further. Entangled in his own private world, he is oblivious and full of himself. A little "wheesseki" he offers to his family, relaxing in the afternoon sun on lawn chairs outside the tomb-like bunker of their villa. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi plays his wife Isabelle, with an equal amount of blushing fervour. She will be 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), a bit reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett, switches effortlessly - and daily - between gender identifications. Local boy Ma Loute (played by Thierry Lavieville's son, Brandon Lavieville) is fascinated.

And what about the incest and the cannibalism, you may wonder? Well, tourists start to disappear around the area and two clueless inspectors resembling Laurel and Hardy paunchy Machin (Didier Després) and his flustered side-kick Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), lead the stumbling investigation. Silent films come to mind in a vague sense. Just as Joseph Cedar's Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer was inspired by the early 20th century Cohen shorts, Dumont explores non-verbal communication skills that have been abandoned by much of contemporary cinema.

Napoléon Bonaparte said that the sublime is only one step away from the ridiculous. Dumont proves with Slack Bay that the opposite direction is just as true. The absurd exaggerations and the wild parishes of humor are completely original, never cruel, and attached to a physicality that is pure cinema. The stumbling, bumbling characters are who we are. Gloriously funny and outrageously deep, Bruno Dumont's Slack Bay speaks of the human condition in a peculiar, yet completely sound way.

We all levitate from time to time in our dreams. Pre-war innocence might not be so innocent after all. The past and the present can share a mood. Dumont's previous film and miniseries, the uproariously funny murder mystery P'tit Quinquin, kidnapped us into absurdity and reality in a similar fashion.

"We know what to do, but we do not do" says Christian Van Peteghem (Jean-Luc Vincent), Isabelle's brother, in an impassioned kind of English. Language is intensely physical in this film.

Whereas Ma Loute's grunts emerge from deep within his stomach (has he digested a foot?), the Van Peteghem's squeals are pressed out from the back of their throats, light and fake and fearful. They all have a lot of truth to hide.

All of this is very comical because we recognize the lack of grace as our own. Dumont's utter absence of sarcasm results in a fearless journey to regain it. As Heinrich von Kleist explains in his writing about the marionette theatre, we sometimes have to circle the globe of artificiality and trespass into the mechanical before grace is regained. Slack Bay is a stop along that way and the most cathartic film in US cinemas right now.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2017
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Period comedy, set in 1910, about the investigation into disappearances from beaches in France.
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Richard Mowe **

Director: Bruno Dumont

Writer: Bruno Dumont

Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Thierry Lavieville, Jean-Luc Vincent, Didier Desprès, Raph, Laura Dupré, Brandon Lavieville, Cyril Rigaux, Angélique Vergara

Year: 2016

Runtime: 122 minutes

Country: Germany, France

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