Director: Bruno Dumont
Cast: Brandon Lavievielle, Didier Després, Cyril Rigaux, Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Thierry Lavievielle
Watch Slack Bay online in the UK: MUBI UK / iTunes
Is there a simpler joy in all of comedy than watching a comically fat man rolling down a sand dune? If so, Bruno Dumont will find it soon enough in his quest to perfect slapstick, a quest begun in 2014’s film/TV series P’tit Quinquin.
Before then, he was an auteur of a very different type, specialising in austere, serious films like The Life of Jesus (1997) and Hors Satan (2011). He’s lost none of that intellectual rigour or fascination with the divine, but the introduction of an anarchic comedic spirit certainly helps to lighten his often bleak mood.
Set in 1910 on his native Northern French coast, Slack Bay circles tightly around the eponymous chunk of landscape, as detectives Machin (Després) and Malfoy (Rigaux) investigate a series of mysterious disappearances, like a strange cross between Laurel and Hardy and Tintin’s Thompson and Thomson. Like the lead Commandant Van der Weyden in P’tit Quinquin, the detectives aren’t too fussed with solving the case, but are happy to plod around the neighbourhood asking a question every now and then. People may be dying, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a matter of life and death.
That light-hearted tone is taken even further by Dumont’s brilliant use of slapstick to undercut serious moments and distort this world into one blighted, or maybe just excited, by countless petty failures. Detective Machin is too fat to bend over and examine evidence, so he simply falls to the floor and eyeballs the item with his face flat against the sand. André (Luchini) shuffles along like a hunchbacked Eric Idle and breaks his deckchair when he sits down. L’Eternel (Lavieville) and Ma Loute (Lavieville) are father and son ferrymen who mostly neglect to use their boat and just carry passengers across the shallow water. Everything is just a little askew in Slack Bay.
At moments, Dumont achieves slapstick in its purest form. There’s no elegant set-up or reason offered, just wilfully stupid pratfalls. He constructs his physical comedy to the point where the more obvious and inevitable the fall, the funnier it is.
Of course, considering his CV, it’s almost impossible to imagine Dumont making ‘just’ a comedy. Slack Bay is a feverish, restless combination of absurdist comedy, political horror and bourgeois family drama. The poor, mussel-picking Brufort family of Ma Loute and his several siblings come into contact with the wealthy Van Peteghems in intriguing ways, most of all in the relationship between Ma Loute and the Van Peteghem’s trans child Billie.
Dumont’s treatment of Billie as a trans character is, to sit on the fence, problematic. His mother (a brilliantly hysterical Binoche) quite happily switches pronouns to match however Billie has chosen to dress in any given scene, and, for most of the film, his relationship with Ma Loute feels pleasingly progressive for a film set in 1910. Sadly, that’s thrown away again in a conclusion that follows the typical conservative reaction when a trans character is outed. Arguably, Dumont just chooses realism over idealism, but it’s still disappointing to see.
Shot in ravishing, crisp images by Guillaume Deffontaines, Slack Bay is a strange place to be. Its three strands of comedy, horror and drama never quite come together into one neat conclusion, but somehow that would feel improper. One of the joys of Slack Bay is Dumont’s relaxed pace, letting emotion and meaning grow naturally and in unexpected ways. The result is hard to dissect, but certain to leave an impression, with its masterful comedy, provocative politics and a cast of brilliant performances.
Slack Bay is available on MUBI UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
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