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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

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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia