Slack Bay is a charming and largely inoffensive class conscious French period comedy that very much goes about its own way for the majority of its running time before making some incredibly poor decisions and collapsing under the weight of its own awfulness.
Like, it starts off innocuous enough. We run up three parallel stories: The well to do Van Peterghems visiting their summer house by the bay; the poor Bruforts of the nearby fishing village who make a living gathering mussels, manning lifeguard boats and sailing tourists through the shallows between beaches; and the police, investigating the mysterious disappearances that have been happening around the bay.
Bruno Dumont might think he coming up with something very new socialist here. For, as heavy as he lays on the artifice, every frame in this damn joint feels like it wants to be a political statement. He deliberately chose to cast newcomers, non-professional actors Thierry and Brandon Lavieville as the father and son at the centre of that Brufort plot, deliberately contrasting with the huge names he be putting up at the castle. How postmodern, it alright though, cos like, Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche just get to go wild with it.
It’s so often very low comedy. There’s a hundred falling over gags in this one, some very established actors have to pull off some very silly lines, doing so like the campiest stage versions of themselves. There’s the image that Dumont keeps coming back to: their house, elegantly constructed entirely out of marble, then coated ceiling to ground with cement as they insist is the style. Their lives are an extension of that house, its contradictions become their own and the actors entrusted with these characters put in all the work. I dunno what they’ve created here, it’s some mutant style of acting something heightened and extreme, but then it’s intercut with a naturalistic withering glare and it all comes together.
So let’s throw some praise at the newcomers too then, Thierry Lavieville is like the prefect salty salty fisherman man, and Cyril Rigaux, playing the police chief’s assistant, has consistently the best reactions. Dumont throws him into the back of scenes where he ain’t even doing anything because dude’s face so funny, IMDB has this as his only screen credit too, I wanna see him more.
There’s love down by the bay too, like in all these stories, a pair of star crossed lovers, our Jack and Rose. La Moute Brufort (Brandon Lavieville) and Billie Van Peterghem (Raph) steal the show for a little while, mostly because they got the most going on, La Moute carries himself with heavy shoulders and a stony face, Billie is rebellious and cross-dresses for fun and delights that she can look good in whatever she wears. Things get even more exciting when her family keep up the pretence that she’s male, but she constantly snaps back at them to respect her identity.
Raph plays this character perfectly, far more naturalistic then the rest of the family. Quiet and vulnerable and passionate and dignified and confident and silly. They make Billie so easy to love, then La Moute learns that she was assigned male at birth and what was this goofy, wacky comedy decides to depict a brutal and horrific transphobic attack on this young woman totally without comment. Then, as a discerning reader, you can probably work out why the film seems so disgusting.
The film waves its class flag high and proud, but if your politics ain’t intersectional they ain’t worth shit. Dumont clearly thinks it’s just fine to denigrate non-normative bodies in his striving for a greater equality. The figure of the incompetent cop is a fun and compelling one, we all may engage in a healthy mistrust of the police. Like Chief Wiggum before him, his uselessness is the cause and concern of his fatness. The more people disappear the larger he quite literally gets, until we reach the end of the film where he’s flying off like Aunt Marge (another character whose fatness is a supposedly moral failing.)
Then we see how the representation of class comes across. It’s queerness. Working class people are straight people. And they nobly beat the deviant class traitor rich who, like She in Pulp’s Common People can never comprehend their way of life. This queerness then directly tied into the notion of incest, because the parents of this family also cousins. Maybe Dumont just ignorant, but it don’t come across a good scene.
Seems like a lot of the shit here is drawing from classic commedia dell’arte type style. Like, you can’t say that André, the patriarch ain’t a pantalone, just like Cheif Machin (Didier Després) ain’t doing his own version of il dottore. I studied commedia for a while and it’s a form that is obsessed with the performance of gender and sexuality. Combatting the pure vision of a normative society against the depravity of a non-normative one.
Like, in commedia a rapist will be a fun and lighthearted character so long as they want to rape women. They realise they were pursuing a man all along and react with shock and violence. I acted out scenes like that. Weird, innit. You can’t introduce an actual nuanced statement regarding queerness into this context, because the context entirely relies on denigrating queerness on the cultural stage.
You can’t, in your wacky French comedy, foreground an assault on a trans woman by a cishet dude who had feelings for her, then leave that scene with nothing to say.
Slack Bay is currently screening in UK cinemas