Slack Bay mixes slapstick, social commentary and cannibalism

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

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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