I will level with you: I have never seen a Dumont film. Nor do I know all that much about the good man. However, having done a smattering of research into the French auteur’s oeuvre, I can safely conclude that his most recent outing ‘Slack Bay’ is not to be seen as indicative of his overall style.
Sure, Dumont is known for dabbling in the grimmer elements of life. His controversial Grand Prix winning work, “L’Humanité” was notoriously grim, centring around an investigation into the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl in the North of France. We have certain superficial similarities in Slack Bay’s setting and the grimness of its cannibalistic content. Nevertheless, Slack Bay, or Ma Loute in French, is (if you can believe it) a comedy…
Set on the Channel coast in the 1910s, Slack Bay sees the serial disappearances of bourgeois nitwits set upon spending a relaxing sojourn by the sea. They’ve come to admire the countryside and marvel at the local ouvriers, little aware that a family of Oyster gatherers will clock them over the heads with oars, chop them into pieces, and gobble them up at their dilapidated house. Sounds funny, right?
The unabashed silliness of this period vaudeville certainly gets the chuckles. With its slapstick sensibilities, whacky characters, and over-the-top performances, it presents an absurd style humour one cannot help but confusedly laugh at. It is, however, a comedy that is somewhat difficult to swallow, if you’ll pardon the ill-fated pun. Grisly scenes of cannibalism, with young urchins being asked by their mother whether they, “want more foot” as they crowd round a cauldron of bloodied appendages makes for droll viewing, albeit through one’s fingers. With an added bit of incest on the cinematic menu, Dumont seems determined to stray into areas where comedy ordinarily daren’t not wander; perhaps this is for a good reason.
Juliette Binoche as Aude, a hysterical dame clad in ridiculous pastel dress of the period is about as over the top as they come. She prances to and fro in a fit of melodrama, delivering every line with an operatic flourish, half-singing the frantic array of emotions her troubled characters exhibits. Frabrice Luchini as Andre, her bumbling brother, gives a similarly theatrical performance, his pronounced hunch adding to the unique lunacy of his character. A stand-out comedic turn comes from Didier Despres as Machin, a shoddy detective who is as wide as he tall, Despres using his considerable paunch for physical comedy’s gain.
There will be many who fail to appreciate this extraordinarily bizarre film’s charm. I may be amongst them. Watching the rather gruesome events of the film unfold, I was struck both by the film’s curiously warm whimsy, as well as its anarchic rhythm. I have not seen a film quite like this one before, and as a Dumont debutant I am intrigued to delve deeper into his previous work, though I will also admit to a sense of trepidation in doing so. Perhaps a few week’s respite is required following the gobbling of fingers, the whiplash inducing shifts in tone, and the absurdity of the whole darned thing.
Words by George Washbourn
Slack Bay releases in select cinemas in June and will be available on MUBI from July