Bruno Dumont pushed himself as a filmmaker with his comic detective miniseries P’tit Quinquin (2014), and now he seems to have confirmed this new direction for the cinema with Slack Bay, a pratfall-filled coastal tale of crime and love set in the 1910s. The crime is missing tourists in a poor seaside village on Côte d'Opale; the investigators a blimp-sized local detective and his pint-sized sidekick; and the love is between a local boy and a cross-dressing young beauty of a rich family whose gratuitously Egyptian-style mansion sits sentinel over the titular marshy bay.
In this far-flung location the French director ambitiously expands his experiment begun with his first period film, Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), where his preferred cast of non-professional locals—including, in that film, those with mental disabilities—acted alongside mega-star Juliette Binoche. In Slack Bay, Binoche returns as a rich flit and mother of the romantic youth of ambiguous gender, alongside Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrice Luchini as aesthete husband and wife. In other words, Dumont has cast his rich family on the hill predominantly from big-name actors. Downhill, in the low-tide mud of the bay, the poor population and their bumbling police force are cast entirely by regional non-professionals, this filmmaker always gifting his audiences with the kinds of faces, bodies and accents almost completely absent from cinema in multiplexes and arthouses alike. This side of the filmmaker is very precious indeed, making inextricable from his dramas of spirit and degradation a local character accentuated and presented as true presence before the camera. What makes Slack Bay somewhat radical is that the kind of human presence before the camera this director elicits from regional casting he tries to re-create grotesquely in the performances of his stars—perhaps, ultimately, as class criticism.
Unlike P’tit Quiquin, the crime in Slack Bay is no mystery: we soon see a young man, Ma Loute (a slangy, affectionate sexual nickname that is the French title of the film), and his brothers eating from a pot of human remains. Mere minutes after we learn that Ma Loute, who works as a mussel gatherer, also assists his father ferrying visiting bourgeoisie across the bay, we see him kill a pair of tourists with his oar. The corpulent detective, quite daft and prone to tipping or rolling over, can’t figure out what’s going on, but since we know all too well—Dumont keeping the horror vivid but played superficially for laughs—the drama of Slack Bay becomes the interaction between the posh holidaying family and the locals.
Taking even further the unexpected comedy of P’tit Quinquin, this filmmaker of normally grave, spiritual and profoundly rigorous arthouse films pushes his recognizable actors into extreme farcical caricature, grossly exaggerating their facial tics and physical contortions (none more absurd nor sublime than Luchini’s hunchbacked patriarch who seems to lightly dance everywhere instead of walk) and finding plenteous opportunities for slips, falls, broken chairs, and other silent cinema gags. Dumont’s appreciative distain for this rich family, with its intimations of inbreeding and blasé cluelessness, nevertheless comes off sympathetic, indeed perhaps too tolerable, even when we can see Binoche or Luchini being pushed to the edge of the manic. Meanwhile, the poor, outside of the local law, are treated far more respectfully, and thus the attraction between Ma Loute and the beautiful boy-girl from the city—a romance that has a cuteness in keeping with the director’s bizarre move towards, let’s say, a more approachable style—suggests a union metaphoric and metaphysical. Together, the couple is a possible meeting point between the horror that, in Dumont’s cinema, can lurk in the isolation of a rural countryside whose base values can be downright primordial, and the indifferent inanity of an upper-class entirely superfluous, but for tourism, to the locality.
Despite a wonderful use of location—for the bracing, almost confrontative character of Dumont’s best films lay not only in filming the local population but in bringing out the rash beauty and bleak spareness of his countryside—the film’s range of humor is limited and the laughs wane as the same jokes are repeated. At the same time, the relaxed and episodic televisual pacing of P’tit Quinquin is also found here, which makes the film’s first third—in which we are still learning the lay of the land, the customs of the area, and are charmed and horrified by both sides of the class divide—surprising and winning, but, as with its humor, the film wears out over time. With a young Joan of Arc musical set to premiere this year in Cannes and a continuation of Quinquin in the works, it seems that this newly flourishing side of one of the most important contemporary filmmakers is here to stay. After a terrific first start followed by this strangely awkward evolution, perhaps Jeannette, l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc's ridiculously promising vision will finally find Bruno Dumont fully hitting his new stride.