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Slack Bay (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

Slack Bay

SLACK BAY (2016)

Starring Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Jean-Luc Vincent, Brandon Lavieville, Raph, Didier Després, Cyril Rigaux, Laura Dupré, Thierry Lavieville, Lauréna Thellier, Manon Royère and Caroline Carbonnier.

Screenplay by Bruno Dumont.

Directed by Bruno Dumont.

Distributed by Kino Lorber.  122 minutes.  Not Rated.

Occasionally, after watching a movie you must ask yourself: “What the heck did I just see?”

Which is not necessarily a bad thing; inscrutability can be a good trait in a film. No one likes everything cookie cutter. Isn’t it better to watch a movie that makes you think?

The new French comedy Slack Bay is… well, I’m not 100% sure what it is… but it is certainly a thought-provoking film. It has an offbeat mix of silent-era slapstick, broad class caricatures, casual incest, Monty Python-esque surrealism and pitch black cannibalism humor. Not only that, three characters spontaneously gain the power of flight, for no apparent reason.

Slack Bay is a great many things, but it is never dull.

Let’s just say that you know things are a little off-kilter in a film when you have a redneck cannibal teen shyly asking his gender-fluid new crush if she would like him to eat her.

Whether this is funny, or shocking, or just weird; I guess it all depends on what you bring to the table as a viewer. For me, it mostly tended to veer off into the “strange” territory, though parts of the movie were undeniably rather funny.

And yet, director Bruno Dumont appears to purposely be tamping down the mysterious and comedic aspects of this mysterious black comedy, giving the film an eccentric off-the-wall quality.

The story of Slack Bay – giving it the benefit of the doubt that it indeed has a story – takes place in 1910, in a run-down but beautiful seaside area in the north of France.

The action revolves around two families – one rich and one poor.

The rich family is the Van Peteghems, a group of eccentric inbred tourists who annually visit a compound-like castle with an astonishing view of the bay. The patriarch (Fabrice Luchini) limps around (this movie has more silly walks than a Python sketch) making grand proclamations. His wife tends to fall down – often. His daughters seem interchangeable, but his niece is transgender long before it became cool. (Even the actress has the coolly androgynous name Raph.) His sister (Juliette Binoche) is an impossibly over-the-top drama queen.

The poor clan is the Bruforts. They make a living gathering mussels on the shore. The father and oldest son (played by real life father and son Thierry and Brandon Lavieville) also make a living as the local ferrymen, taking tourists across the bay. They have a rowboat, but mostly they just literally carry the people across the shallow water. The family also has a few small kids who delight in annoying tourists.

Then, muddling their way through the proceedings are the local gendarmes, a local police Inspectors Machin (Didier Despres) and Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), who appear to be modeled after Laurel and Hardy. (Machin is fat and boisterous, Malfoy is thin and taciturn.) A group of tourists have disappeared and the two are bumbling behind, trying to solve the mystery as more and more people vanish.

The film outs the Bruforts pretty early on, with a grotesquely over-the-top scene showing that they are supplementing their mussel collecting by killing and eating tourists. And then it puts the Bruforts, the Van Peteghems and the police on an odd collision course, complicating things more by adding a Montaque/Capulet type of forbidden romance between the oldest Brufort boy and the androgynous Van Peteghem niece (or nephew?)

Interestingly, for a film with two of the best actors in France (Luchini and Binoche), it is Didier Despres, a first-time actor who plays the fat police investigator who steals almost every scene he gets. Despres is a naturally very large man, but is also made to wear a fat suit to make him even more oppressively obese. Constantly falling and having to be helped up, making dramatic proclamations and eventually floating away into the horizon, Despres shows a natural comic gift.

The professional actors and big stars have a hoot with their eccentric characters – Binoche in particular goes way, way over the top, chewing scenery with gusto.

After having watched Slack Bay, I’m not going to lie, I’m not sure whether I like it or not. It is so surreally offbeat that it’s almost disorienting. I’m not sure that Bruno Dumont even wants us to like the film, per se, in a typical filmgoing way. The writer/director is trying to challenge his audience, at the same time making some very pointed criticisms of French life. (And I will acknowledge, not as a Frenchman I’m sure I missed some of the in jokes and topical references.)

But it sure makes you think. That is not something you can always say about a movie.

Besides, for whatever else it is, Slack Bay is a lot more fun than the Donner party.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: April 27, 2017.

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