French Film Festival UK: Slack Bay (Ma Loute) (2016)

Divided into stalwarts of French cinema and non-professional actors, Bruno Dumont’s crime caper Slack Bay exposes the grotesque in everyone.

Bay Watch

by Alexa Dalby

Slack Bay

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Director Bruno Dumont returns to his home turf – Nord-Pas de Calais – in a surreal comedy that almost defies description. Set in 1910, it contrasts two families, with everyone a caricature: the feral, proletarian Bruforts, living in the fishing community, who forage for mussels on the rocks and ferry tourists across the flat, featureless, muddy estuary, and the bourgeois, inbred Van Peteghems, who always take their annual summer holidays on this stretch of coast. As with P’tit Quinquin, he uses a mixture of professional and non-professional actors.

Holidaymakers are being murdered and, as in Quinquin, the incompetent regional police are brought in to solve the crime. Dressed in black suits and wearing bowler hats, the pair look like Laurel and Hardy, one of them grossly fat (Didier Despres) and the other very slight (Cyril Rigaux). They suspect the Bruforts, and question the brutal father (Thierry Lavieville) and son, the eponymously named lunk Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville). And, unlike P’tit Quinquin, the identity of the murderers is revealed early on in the film, the police investigation a device for unfolding the story.

They were right to suspect the Bruforts, because they are cannibals – we see them crouched over a bloody iron cooking pot delving for body-part titbits. The Van Peteghems (their head is Comédie Francaise actor Fabrice Luchini, his wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), sister Aude (Juliette Binoche) and brother-in-law Jean-Luc Vincent) are eccentric, decadent and patronising, full of mannerisms and quirks. There are three children – two daughters and one of indeterminate and changeable sex, Billie (Raph), who has a fledgling romance across the social divide with Ma Loute.

There’s a running gag of characters falling over suddenly and unexpectedly. The obese policeman is so fat that he rolls down the sand dunes and his footsteps on the sand are given a loud crunching sound effect. There’s regular spontaneous violence, such as whacking with an oar. Dumont said, at the press conference following the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “There is a bestial instinct, but here you accept it because it’s funny. For quite some time I have wanted to focus on drama, but what I came to realise was that comedy was the flip side of drama. Drama is contained in a comedy. We are shown a lot of violence, but pirouette and things become funny. The funny side adds substance to violence. Eating other people becomes acceptable because it’s actually funny. That shows people the way we really are – both horrible and saints, idiots and geniuses. The idea of being diametrically opposed really enthrals me.” And as well as this, there are miraculous events.

It’s a cinema of the absurd with a tone reminiscent of Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, a bizarre, grotesque black comedy that swerves into inexplicable events, with the joke so over the top that it’s stretched as far as it can go.

Slack Bay premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2016 and screens at the 25th French Film Festival UK on 10 November 2017.

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