André Van Peteghem, the bird-brained head of a haute bourgeois family so inbred that most of its members can’t sit down in a chair on the first try, bumbles around his villa-slash-Egyptian-mausoleum like a commedia dell’arte version of an upper-class nitwit—a sort of human turtle in mutton chops and riding boots. (He doesn’t ride.) Below, on the North Sea beach, the obese, solecistic police inspector Machin repeatedly slips and rolls down sand dunes, relying on his ginger-haired lackey Malfoy to recover and dust off his tiny bowler hat. They are on a missing persons case. Somewhere nearby live the miserably impoverished Bruforts, who earn their living carrying the visitors across the bay. (Literally, in their arms.) The Bruforts are cannibals. They kill and eat fancy-pants beachgoers. “More foot?” asks Mrs. Brufort, waving a severed appendage that recently belonged to a vacationing lady with a parasol. The Brufort kids, their sweaters messy with blood, shake their heads in an indifferent “no,” as though they were fishermen’s children faced with a third helping of fish.
Like a Monty Python send-up of his miniseries Li’l Quinquin (itself absurdist and self-parodying), Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay casts the French writer-director’s super serious themes of grace and savagery into a surrealist farce of silly voices and silly walks—a high-pitched, ululating fart of a movie, coming from an art filmmaker once known for his miserablism. Perhaps it’s not as different as it seems from Dumont’s early films, which were blessed with wonderfully pretentious titles like The Life Of Jesus and Humanité; it has the same philosophical obsessions, though they are now couched in wacky sight gags, squeaky sound effects, and a slapstick parody of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet. In subtitles, the dialogue sometimes reads like a mishmash of Popeye, Katzenjammer Kids, and Irwin Corey, though perhaps less funny than that sounds. It all speaks to Dumont’s grotesque sensibility, as a comedy as weird and broad as Slack Bay has its own shock value. Though it’s unlikely that anyone walking into the theater without some foreknowledge of Dumont’s oeuvre would leave thinking he had a reputation for mind-numbing pacing or graphic sex.
Slack Bay is set sometime in the early 20th century in Dumont’s native Hauts-De-France region, once again called upon to supply the director with austere landscapes and an assortment of odd-looking locals. The Van Peteghems, however, are mostly played by well-known actors, giving the most bizarre performances of their careers: Fabrice Luchini as André; Juliette Binoche as his Florence Foster Jenkins-esque diva sister, Aude; Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as his cousin-wife, Isabelle, who experiences porny orgasmic convulsions at the merest suggestion of excitement; and theater actor Jean-Luc Vincent (who co-starred with Binoche in Dumont’s Camille Claudel, 1915) as Isabelle’s idiot brother, Christian, a lampoon of Ordet’s holy madman Johannes by way of Buster Bluth. In its own surreal logic, the movie takes the shape of a class farce, as Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), the oldest of the Brufort sons, begins seeing Aude’s trans daughter, Billie (the mononymous Raph), perceived as a boy by everyone except Ma Loute and the audience.
One might call this the more familiar Bruno Dumont movie hidden inside Slack Bay: a deterministic tale of attraction and revulsion. Although Billie is at first only a minor character, it could be argued that the film takes place in her point of view; Dumont’s narratives are always more literary in their construction than they might seem at first glance. Her family are imbeciles who can barely stand on their own two legs; their summer house looks like a tomb from the outside; Ma Loute’s family resents her class so much that they literally eat them; and authority is so full of hot air that Machin (Didier Després) at one point takes off in the wind like a balloon. (It’s one of several levitation gags in the movie.) In Dumont’s version of agnostic mysticism, paradoxes have often stood in for miracles, but here, where the laws of physics follow Looney Tunes rules, the secular miracle is that Billie is more or less normal—the only character who isn’t a cartoon. The simplistic moral is one that Dumont never tires of repeating: Narrow-mindedness can turn people viciously cruel. But at least this time he has some fun with it, revealing the laugh-out-loud comic strip sensibility behind his panel-like camera style.