Slack Bay (15)
France/Germany/Belgium 122 mins Subtitles Dir: Bruno Dumont Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Jean-Luc Vincent, Brandon Lavieville, Raph, Didier Despres, Cyril Rigaux, Caroline Carbonnier
Smart, stylish and sophisticated, French comedies are often given the inferior remake treatment by Hollywood. Le diner de Cons, Mon pere ce heros and Taxi are all better enjoyed in their original form. But there’s another strand of French comedy that, to put it politely, doesn’t travel too well. Anyone remember Les Visiteurs? This 1993 flick remains one of the all-time biggest hits at the French box office, but you’d be hard pushed to find a non-Gallic viewer who laughed once.
Enter Bruno Dumont, who’s best known for such earthy, misanthropic, Bressonian arthouse dramas as the award-winning L’Humanite, Hadewijch and Flandres. Slack Bay sees him back in his familiar northern France stomping ground and is magnificently photographed in Cinemascope by Guillaume Deffontaines, with whom he collaborated on Camille Claudel 1915. In all other respects, this is very much a departure for Dumont, although his 2014 TV series P’tit Quinquin perhaps pointed the way. An increasingly surreal and, alas, mirthless period culture clash black comedy, it certainly succeeds in coaxing the worst, most cringingly embarrassing performances ever seen from such greats as Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche. If you enjoy pratfalls, especially the sight of fat men falling over, dive right in. But although it has its champions, this is a film that’s more likely to annoy and irritate than charm.
Set at the turn of the twentieth century in a tiny coastal hamlet not far from Calais, Slack Bay centres on two very different but equally grotesque clans. The horny-handed Bruforts are local mussel pickers with a sideline in ferrying – or, at low tide, simply carrying – tourists across the bay. They reside in authentic rural squalor with hordes of unruly grubby urchins. The Van Peteghems are vile toffs from inland Tourcoing, paying their annual visit to the family’s summer home – a peculiar concrete mock-Egyptian folly with an enviable view over the dunes. Connecting them are a pair of bumbling little’n’large cops (Despres, Rigaux) – think Laurel and Hardy meet Thomson and Thompson from the Tintin books – who are investigating a series of mysterious disappearances of tourists in the area. We’re let in on their fate at an early stage in the proceedings: the Bruforts are whacking them on the back of the head, chopping them up and devouring them. “Who wants some more foot?” demands harridan Mrs. Brufort (Carbonnier), as the siblings wolf down the bloody contents of a communal iron pot. “Some brain?”
There’s no reason why this couldn’t have been more fun, but Dumont labours and botches it at every turn. The fatty cop falls over and rolls around all the time to diminishing comedic returns, no chair is sat upon without collapsing, and nobody appears to have been empowered to take the leading cast members aside and ask them to turn it down several notches. So the great Fabrice Luchini, who last demonstrated his flair for comedy with that splendid hangdog turn in Gemma Bovary, is reduced to an embarrassing caricature in which he stumbles and gurns as the ineffectual, humpbacked patriarch, Andre Van Peteghem. Juliette Binoche is similarly awful, over-emoting grandly in a performance that threatens to redefine the meaning of the term ‘broad’ as Andre’s sister, Aude. There’s a potentially interesting subplot about a developing romance between the Bruforts’ surly, pock-marked eldest son Ma Loute (Lavieville) and Aude’s offspring Billie (Raph), who may or may not be a boy dressed as a girl, but this is played as though it belongs in a different film. Be warned that once the cast start to levitate, you may have lost patience altogether. If you have room in your life for just one French cannibalism comedy, stick with Delicatessen.