Stated best within the immortal and oft referenced introduction to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” we can find a general literary observation which has come to be overruled by various degrees of repeated dysfunction in narrative cinema and literature. But if unhappy families have also become all alike, French auteur Bruno Dumont does manage something unique with his kooky new film Slack Bay, a sumptuously photographed period piece where wealthy French tourists suddenly come up missing along the Channel Coast, forcing a bumbling police chief to investigate the two diametrically opposed but equally dysfunctional families in residence. At polar opposite of the class spectrum are a cannibalistic clan of economically compromised mussel gatherers and an inbred, incestuous hotbed of wealthy aristocrats sailing in for an annual visit to their palatial seaside manor resembling a concrete glazed Egyptian tomb. Gleefully insane, to be certain, both of these nuclear units are more or less happy in their own way, and Dumont glides deliriously into territories so nonsensical he freely blends wistful notes of the grotesque and profane into sacerdotal mystique for a film treatment as profoundly off-putting as it is fascinating.
In the summer of 1910, inspectors Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux) and Machin (Didier Despres) are tasked with investigating the disappearance of some French tourists among the beautiful beach of the Channel Coast, where many wealthy folks visit for the summer. Arriving in the middle of this unease are the odd but illustrious Van Peteghem family, led by Andre (Fabrice Luchini) and wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). With their daughters and nephew Billie (Raph), a boy who prefers to dress as a girl while cavorting with his cousins, the family sets in for another lackadaisical summer. Meanwhile, the Brufort’s, a local fishing clan living in the working class area St. Michel, are the ones responsible for the disappearances, as they have developed a taste for human flesh as a way to supplement their meager incomes selling mussels and escorting tourists from shore to shore. When Billie’s extravagant mother Aude (Juliette Binoche) arrives, more people have disappeared, while her son has developed a strong flirtation with Ma Loute Brufort (Brandon Lavieville).
In the same vein as Dumont’s celebrated 2014 miniseries Li’l Quinquin (2014), which displayed similar themes and some of the same performers as well, Slack Bay may be too jarring on a first viewing to truly appreciate the unflaggingly slapstick cuckoo grandeur he achieves. If Jacques Tati had attempted something along the lines of We Are What We Are (2010), it might look something like this, a film so absurd it can only repel or compel.
Overriding even the film’s most gruesome elements is Juliette Binoche as the cooing Aunt Aude, a self-obsessed scion of class pretenses whose constant exclamations and emotional outbursts are more grating than entertaining (when it screened at Cannes, the audience cheered vociferously when her character befalls a violent episode). Likewise, Luchini is her equally caricatured brother, a simpering hunchback who goes off into grandiloquent tirades on potatoes and the flourishing indigenous wisteria, while Tedeschi is more subtly moderated as a chronically frustrated, pinched patrician constantly correcting her hapless maid, Nadege (Laura Dupre) and her incredibly creepy brother Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent).
The film’s French language title, Ma Loute, so named for the main protagonist of the Brufort clan played by newcomer Brandon Lavieville, is slang for ‘my dick,’ a colloquialism (unconfirmed within the film) which results in quite a few vocal gags when characters are forced to call out his name. As his troubled romantic interest, Billie (introducing a performer known as Raph), Dumont creates fascinating transgendered possibilities, considering an actress is playing an adolescent boy who prefers to dress as a girl (and describe her boyish outfits as the disguise, and not the other way around). Eventually, we learn considerable secrets about Billie’s potential origins, and yet remains the most stable character in this clutch of madness. Betwixt these two clans is the bumbling law enforcement duo, played by lisping, obese Cyril Rigaux and Didier Despres as his dimwitted ginger sidekick (both actors also appeared in Li’l Quinquin).
Much of Slack Bay’s physical comedy arrives in the form of the corpulent Rigaux, rolling around the sand dunes while every body movement is granted its own cacophony of sounds (think the swinging door of M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953). Likewise, another considerable gag concerns the Brufort’s other main income, wherein father (Thierry Lavieville) and son carry ladies and slender men across a shallow moat of water all day long, inevitably revealing how their chief source of vulnerable high society members are immobilized.
Bizarre, and quite often mercilessly obnoxious (an endless shrieking scene with Binoche in the film’s protracted second half will strike some as horrendously directed and others brilliant in its ability to agitate), Slack Bay plays like the perverted provincial archetypes which marked Dumont’s earlier works, from his 1997 debut The Life of Jesus to 2011’s Outside Satan. His hyperbolic juxtapositions of high society’s wasteful frivolousness prove to be a winking parallel to the same levels of dysfunction bred amongst the disenfranchised. Like it or loathe it, Slack Bay will provoke a response.