Belle Époque France never looked so grotesque. The idle rich still come to the Opal Coast to be even less productive, but this time it is they who will become fodder for the rustic locals. Class distinctions and gender roles will take a bizarre thrashing in Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (trailer here), an absurdist comedy with the emphasis on the absurd, which opens this Friday in New York.
The Van Peteghems have come to summer at Slack Bay, because that is what respectable people do. Unbeknownst to them, the clam-digging, muscle-harvesting Brufort family has been killing and eating obnoxious bourgeoisie tourists, both for reasons of class consciousness and to put food on the table. Stoop shouldered André Van Peteghem sets a whole new standard for condescension and his sister Aude might be even snobbier. Yet, somehow the Peteghems could be too ridiculous for the Bruforts to kill.
Of course, it does not hurt that oldest Brufort son Ma Loute has fallen head over heels for Aude’s daughter Billie. Technically, the local police chief Alfred Machin and his deputy Malfoy are still investigating the missing tourists, but they inspire less confidence than their obvious inspiration, Laurel and Hardy. When the rotund Machin tips over on his side, it requires quite a laborious effort to right him, so they should not pose much threat to the Bruforts. However, Ma Loute has yet to see Billie when she is in the mood to pull back her hair and don her Annie Hall wardrobe. Her family always accepted he gender playfulness rather casually, because they simply aren’t the sorts to get worked up over anything, but her new proletarian boyfriend is cut from a different cloth—in just about every possible sense.
It is almost impossible to convey the tone and viewing experience of Slack Bay. In many ways, it looks stylistically akin to Dumont’s sly and shocking endearing Li’l Quinquin, but it retains undercurrents of the old, grimly fatalistic Dumont who helmed laugh-a-minute films like Hors Satan and the unremittingly punishing Flanders. In Slack Bay, human nature is irredeemably tainted, but it’s a lovely day, so let’s go to the beach.
At times, the slapstick humor and wacky fantastical realism of Slack Bay makes Tom & Jerry look subtle, but you have to admire the dogged determination with which it is plied. To be honest, there are scenes of such lunacy it made your correspondent laugh out loud, but he was the only one laughing during the screening. Indeed, Dumont’s visuals can be overwhelming. Think of the film as day-to-day scenes from The Village in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, as rendered by Bill Plympton collaborating with Honoré Daumier.
You have probably never seen Juliette Binoche act so Meryl Streepy over-the-top, but she just doubles and triples down as the stately Aude Van Peteghem. On the other hand, Fabrice Luchini is totally in his element as the Van Peteghem patriarch (sort of like Frasier Crane raised to the power of one hundred). Brandon Lavieville’s Ma Loute (the titular character in its original French release) is rather dully brutish, whereas the economically-named Raph has a bright but suitably ambiguous screen presence as Billie Van Peteghem. Yet, Didier Després and Cyril Rigaux steal the show over and over again. As Manchin and Malfoy, they are a spectacle unto themselves.