An early moment in Slack Bay, the latest from French provocateur Bruno Dumont, finds a plump police inspector in a black uniform rolling down a hill of white sand. It’s the kind of image that wouldn’t have been out of place in a silent short, and it sets the stage for Dumont’s general mood of absurdism. The plot, such as it is, concerns a wealthy early–20th century family, the Van Peteghems, who go to visit their summer home only to discover that the police are investigating a series of disappearances in the area. The film is highly self-aware, and Juliette Binoche’s performance as Aude Van Peteghem is delightfully redolent of the snooty dames so memorably captured by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers' films.
Binoche speaks in a pinched upper-crust accent and wears garish hats. She consistently overreacts, even swooning at one point. Aude and her ilk’s foils are the local fishing family, the Bruforts. The rich, unsurprisingly, make their luxurious vacation destination within spitting distance of the poor. The Brufort children, in their impoverishment, all wear matching drab sweaters, and in case you somehow missed how different they were from the Van Peteghems, they also happen to eat people. The cannibalism is intriguing but mostly kept as a bizarre footnote.
Much of the action centers around the water, and Dumont presents the landscape with a calm beauty that functions in stark contrast to the actions and personalities of his characters. (It would be too easy to write Slack Bay off due to its unlikable protagonists.) At all times, the film seems as if it could go in any number of directions: It could be horror, broad comedy or a dramatic treatise on class relations, and ends up being a little of each. The best moments — the Van Peteghems obsequiously marveling at the beauty of the Bruforts (from a safe distance), the mustachioed cops bumbling comically — recall the surreal social satires of Luis Buñuel. While it would be unfair to expect Slack Bay to live up to Buñuel’s mastery, too much of this meandering picaresque proves frustrating.
One of the most puzzling elements of this overall quite puzzling work is Aude’s child, Billie (Raph), a genderqueer teen. Billie is a charismatic figure who sparks a romance with the amusingly named Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), one of the Brufort sons. Billie’s transition between male and female drag speaks to their ease in crossing class boundaries, but at times the gender ambiguity is played for uncomfortable laughter.
The film suggests that Billie is trying to trick everyone. In a late scene, the only one to feature a dramatic score, Ma Loute, fed up with Billie’s gender confusion, beats him. The scene feels unnecessarily cruel. Why must the music swell as Billie starts to bleed? The final moments add a dose of magic realism that lightens the mood. The roly-poly cop begins to levitate like a balloon. Slack Bay is nothing if not anti-authoritarian, and while its anarchic energy is appealing in small doses, it becomes tiresome when it turns toward cruelty.
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