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Slack Bay mixes slapstick, social commentary and cannibalism

Even by Gallic standards of nose-to-tail eating, this film is extreme.

In the course of her long and illustrious career, there has never been the remotest danger that Juliette Binoche might be mistaken for Joan Collins. Still, there’s a first time for everything, as Bruno Dumont’s oddball period comedy Slack Bay proves beyond doubt.

The sight of Binoche camping it up beneath an enormous hat mounted with a gaily coloured dead bird is not the weirdest thing in a film that mixes slapstick, social commentary and cannibalism. But it is refreshing to see her, along with her equally distinguished co-star, Fabrice Luchini, throw caution to the wind with tics, twitches, pratfalls and silly voices. When Binoche faints, she goes into a sort of swooning pirouette.

Hurrying to the scene of a crime, she cycles in mid-air like Wile E Coyote running over the edge of a cliff. By the time Luchini is catapulted across the beach in a bizarre sand-yachting accident, we have entered Naked Gun territory.

Binoche and Luchini play the siblings Aude and André, members of the affluent Van Peteghem family, which spends the summer with assorted children, as well as André’s anxious wife, Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), at a grand house in northern France in the early 20th century. André coos condescendingly over the Bruforts, the earthy labourers who carry the rich folk in their arms across the water when the tide is in. “Such simplicity!” he cries.

Yet there is more to the Bruforts than meets the eye. Tourists have been vanishing and the film doesn’t keep their whereabouts a mystery for long. Huddling around a barrel at dinnertime, the Brufort children scoop out unidentifiable chunks of meat as their mother appears at the kitchen door brandishing a bloody human foot. “A little toe?” she calls. “Some brain?” Even by Gallic standards of nose-to-tail eating, this is extreme.

The good news is that the police are looking for the missing ­holidaymakers. The bad news is that Inspector Machin (Didier Després) and his sidekick, Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), make Laurel and Hardy look like Morse and Lewis. The rotund Machin can’t bend down to examine a clue without tipping over, leaving him flailing in the sand.

Slack Bay continues the straight-faced surrealism that characterised Dumont’s last work, P’tit Quinquin, which also followed a buffoonish cop investigating grisly crimes on France’s northern coast. There was surprise that Dumont had moved into comedy after so many years of dour Bressonian dramas such as L’humanité and Flandres.

But despite this mid-period metamorphosis, his themes remain consistent. In Slack Bay, he is still examining the spiritual desolation of poverty and the seedbed it provides for bigotry and violence. It’s just that now he has dropped into the mix a cartoonish upper class, against which the portrayal of French rural life can only look more grounded – even allowing for the Sweeney Todd-style culinary philosophy.

Not that he sentimentalises the poor. The gawky Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), the eldest Brufort boy, may be shown in a sailor’s hat framed against a ravishing blue sky, an image straight out of Pierre et Gilles, but that doesn’t preclude him from reacting viciously to the suspicion that the love of his life, Billie Van Peteghem (the newcomer Raph), is not only a cross-dresser but intersex into the bargain.

By encouraging famously subtle actors to give recklessly over-the-top performances, the director distances their characters sharply from the world they inhabit. The non-professional cast members appear by comparison to have wandered in from a Raymond Depardon documentary. The risk in combining such disparate acting styles is that audiences may feel they are watching two films jerry-rigged together, as is the case whenever the noble, nuanced poor encounter the shrieking rich in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes and Naked.

Whatever the actors here might be doing, the camera regards everything with the same cool detachment – whether it’s the Bruforts gathering mussels in the mud or the mysteriously inflated Inspector Machin floating serenely above a garden party like a Macy’s Day balloon.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Picture: IWM Art
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The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.

TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.

The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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