His Dark Material
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Bruno Dumont, France, Kino Lorber
A few years ago, as audiences first caught sight of his four-episode television miniseries L’il Quinquin, a strange rumor started making the rounds—the scuttlebutt was that Bruno Dumont, dour chronicler of spiritual crises and acts of random violence spurred by the itch of fatal idleness, had gone all wackadoo coo-coo cr-cr-cr-crazy.
On the evidence of his new film Slack Bay, this shift toward something at least superficially resembling comedy wasn’t just a temporary digression, but a pivot of sorts. Dumont’s latest to arrive in American theaters—I write this shortly after his Jeannette, l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc has been announced for the Cannes Quinzaine des réalisateurs—is a strenuously silly piece of work set shortly before the outbreak of the Great War that divides its time between the haves and have nots in a seaside retreat located somewhere in the Nord, on the Channel Coast. The rich, visiting on holiday, are seen to be neurasthenics, eccentrics, and hysterics, utterly without tact as they gawp at the local peasantry, who are extolled as features of the landscape, like the ruined keep visible in the distance. Both vacationers and townies give every indication of being hopelessly inbred, a suspicion borne out in a late-film revelation that does Chinatown one better, to the point where you might think that a forbidden interclass affair would be greeted as a revivification of the blood.
The young lovers in question are Ma Loute, the title character in the original French, played by jug-eared Brandon Lavieville, and Billie, a visiting bourgeoisie with feminine features who, to the confoundment of the locals, freely moves between male and female dress, played by a performer who goes by the sobriquet of Raph—both she and Lavieville are acting first-timers. When Billie eschews a wig, she has something like the same undercut hairdo as Ma Loute, and both are, within their respective worlds, aristocrats of a kind. Ma Loute is a Brufort, the eldest son of a man spoken of in awe by locals as L’Eternel, a living relic with an ancient mariner’s face drained entirely of color save for the blue of the eyes and a hint of red in the moustache. (The performer, Thierry Lavieville, is Brandon’s real-life father.) L’Eternel is famed for his role rescuing hundreds of men from stormy waters, though now he mostly “ferries” the well-to-do across the waist-deep bay—for couples he’ll unhitch the boat, but women he takes in his arms and slogs across on foot. Billie, for her part, belongs to the self-admiring Van Peteghem clan, headed by André (Fabrice Luchini), a bumbling patriarch who can’t even manage to properly carve a joint of lamb at the dining room table. It is André who built the family retreat, a cement-coated Egyptian-style “Ptolemaic villa” folly pompously named the Typhonium, on a rise facing the bay, where his wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), cousin Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent), and sister Aude (Juliette Binoche), Billie’s mother, can usually be found bouncing off the walls.
The Typhonium becomes something of a fortress redoubt for the Van Peteghems, skittish after they receive news from Machin (Didier Després of L’il Quinquin), a detective in from Calais, that fellow out-of-towners have been disappearing. Machin is a man about as wide as he is tall—his translucently pale, pint-sized, slit-eyed redhead partner (Cyril Rigaux) could fit a half-dozen times over in Machin’s waistcoat—and his mobility is highly limited. When he starts out to descend a dune, he finishes going end-over-end, and when examining a bit of evidence low to the ground he flops and wriggles forward in the fashion of an elephant seal. His every movement seems an enormous effort, and is accompanied by a squelchy creak that’s a bit like the noise you get from massaging a rubber balloon, one of several soundtrack gags scattered through the film—the indistinguishable communiqués from a man in one of those old-fashioned deep-sea-diving suits dredging the bay for bodies, the rusty huff-and-puff trumpet fanfare put out by some superannuated colonel before a military party spreads out to comb the dunes for clues.
Machin’s belly-flop maneuver is startling and quite funny the first time that it happens, then becomes a little sadder with each repetition—literally, the routine is run into the ground, as is the ferry-carry bit. While veering into comedy, Dumont hasn’t lost his punitive streak, and here he imagines shtick as a species of deformity, either physical—Luchini’s André has a humpback that looks like he’s forgotten to take the hanger out of his jacket—or psychological: Binoche is in a near-constant state of agitation, her body language a jumbled grammar of grand dame poses which grow increasingly tormented as the film moves along. The exaggerated performance style of the farce has been cranked up to eleven, moving from the cartooned terrain of Jean-Pierre Jeunet to grotesque, full-on caricature. Further points of comparison might be the sandpaper rubdown that is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1976 Satan’s Brew or R.W.F.’s would-be inheritor François Ozon’s 1998 Sitcom. (Ozon, a prolific lifelong second-rater, is content to épater la bourgeoisie, while Fassbinder knows the real sport lies in épater la bohéme.) Just watching these people interact is exhausting; to be them, one imagines, must be all the more so, and it might seem an act of mercy to put them out of their misery.
It transpires that this is exactly what the Bruforts have been doing between mussel-scavenging outings: cracking rich tourists over the head and then feasting on their meaty bits. This plot twist is revealed to the audience about a quarter of the way through the movie, though it somehow continues throughout to escape the myopic scrutiny of the rather dense Machin. Dumont dispenses with any pretext to whodunit suspense, as he does away with most traditional narrative pleasures, including psychological shading. Unable to connect the dots, the blinkered Machin repeatedly phrases the disappearances “a mystery,” and while offering the big man as a figure of fun, Dumont keeps us similarly in the dark. The stoic expressions of L’Eternel and Ma Loute offer no evidence as to why they might have turned to murder, much less cannibalism, nor is there any explanation as to why, in the film’s final act, its characters suddenly begin to defy the earth’s gravitational pull—is it a miracle bestowed by Our Lady of the Seas, or a freak trick of the coastal winds? There is, moreover, little in the traditional sense of character identification here—perhaps some viewers will feel a twinge of true sorrow when the romance between Ma Loute and Billie violently breaks up when Ma Loute detects a telltale bulge in his beloved’s trousers, but there is very little in Dumont’s presentation that suggests he’s encouraging such a reaction.
You can’t call the absence of these things “failures” on Dumont’s part—you can’t really fail at something you weren’t attempting in the first place. In fact Dumont’s antipathies and interests remain much the same as they always have, which is to say that rumors of his reinvention as a 21st-century Mack Sennett have been greatly exaggerated. You can draw a straight line from the bumbling investigations in both Slack Bay and L’il Quinquin to the murder mystery inspected by Emmanuel Schotté in L’Humanité (1999), while the straightfaced presentation of the supernatural and miraculous here carries over from Hadewijch (2009), Outside Satan (2011), and Camille Claudel 1915 (2013). If Dumont’s resistance to psychology is the department in which he most resembles Robert Bresson, to whom he has often, rather awkwardly at times, been compared, it’s in his approach to the miraculous that they most greatly differ. Dumont is a professed atheist, and like many a nonbeliever it’s only the most extreme manifestations of religious fervor that attract his fancy: holy fools (downright simpletons), hermits, and feats of hocus-pocus.
If Dumont has any true faith, it must be in his native country—he returns again and again to the northeast of France, always casting local nonprofessionals, and is as devout to his pays de naissance as Thomas Hardy was to Wessex or John Constable to Dedham Vale. The latter comparison is, perhaps, most appropriate. Dumont is, of course, a filmmaker, and dealing therefore in moving pictures—he delineates the terrain around a bay as well as Hitchcock in The Birds or Paul W.S. Anderson in Pompeii—but his visual grammar, made up as it is of steady close-up portraiture and figures-in-a-landscape compositions, encourages you to think in terms of paintings, and not only the expected ones. Watching Slack Bay, for example, I thought of the intense, eerie light that suffused George Bellows’s scenes of the romping rich at Newport from the end of his life and of the work put out by James Ensor of seaside Ostend roughly contemporary to the setting of Dumont’s film, which also visualized a new culture of leisure and pleasure haunted by the specter of death.
Counting L’il Quinquin, Slack Bay is 59-year-old Dumont’s ninth feature. Without ever seeming to reign supreme over the European festival scene as, say, the Dardenne brothers or Michael Haneke have at various points, Dumont anticipates and exemplifies features of the contemporary art film to a greater degree than either of those Cannes mainstays—the investigation failed by rational ratiocination is one of the staple scenarios of 21st-century cinema (Memories of Murder, Zodiac, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), and in leaping into the unknown from this dead end Dumont may be said to have jumped out ahead of a new generation of nondenominational dabblers in otherworldly esoterica, from Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Oliver Laxe, whether or not any direct influence can be proven.
The years of Dumont’s feature filmmaking career roughly correspond to my mature moviegoing life, and I’ve somehow followed his progress the entire way without ever developing much of a feeling for his films beyond an academic appreciation, or finding a way through his philosophical remove—perhaps this is the “ambiguity” that Dumont identified as the key element in his L’Humanité in a 2000 Village Voice interview. The recent addition of out-and-out slapstick shenanigans to his oeuvre only muddies the brackish water further. While I’ve seen Slack Bay referred to with language like “uproarious,” I experienced the flinty little gags here as, at best, brief respites from an atmosphere of smothering delirium, while Dumont shows little interest in putting into place more ambitious structures of setup and payoff—which after all would imply an obedience to traditional cause-and-effect. Still, there’s undeniably a loopy pleasure in seeing Machin’s startled, inexplicable transformation into a runaway human dirigible, being chased down by the united Van Peteghems, all grasping after his trailing tether. And if Dumont’s modus operandi all along has been to float just out of reach, just beyond interpretation, he must be judged a kind of success—a materialist mystic who feels no need to reconcile the apparent contradiction of such an identity. Such unresolved dichotomies are often at the heart of great work, acting as a source of dynamic tension, but Dumont’s films have always seemed curiously, well, slack. For all the talk of Dumont’s rebirth, Slack Bay is of a piece with a larger oeuvre that feels at once grandly uncompromised and absent of any passionate belief to compromise, save a conviction that there is something worth seeing in the geography—human and otherwise—of his homeland.