What They Do in the Dunes

Bruno Dumont, NYC, 9/30/14

Like Lartigue’s family, as seen in his early photos, the wealthy Van Peteghems in Bruno Dumont’s new comedyish (with many–often uncomfortable–lol moments) “Slack Bay” (“Ma Loute”), enjoy the pleasures pursued by the bourgeois at the French seaside in the beginning of the 20th century. And although it’s impossible to be certain (Lartigue’s work is MOS), it’s most unlikely that the great photographer’s family shared the Van Peteghem’s profound peculiarities.

It’s summer 1910 and the eccentric and inbred Van Peteghems have decamped from Tourcoing to their villa, the Typhonium (in the “Egyptian style. The Ptolemaic style.”), with its glorious view of Slack Bay. The film is an unusual period piece, and although it’s concerned with social class and human character, it does its work as an absurdist farce, full of slapstick–collapsing people and furniture–and elements of the grotesque.

André Van Peteghem (Fabrice Luchini, “as you’ve never seen him before,” great, as always), a hunched, grimacing founding father of the Ministry of Silly Walks, his wife (and first cousin, once removed), Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, perfectly tight and hysterically nervous) are settling in, airing out the manse, as their two slightly simple looking adolescent daughters and the girls’ beautiful, androgynous cousin Billie (Raph) run down to the bay.

The Brufords, a working class family living across the Slack River in St. Michel, are collecting les moules and other less savory staples of their diet. Mr. Bruford (Thierry La Vieville) aka “The Eternal” for his prowess in saving drowning sailors, and his oldest son, Ma Loute (Bradon La Vieville, who has the particular type of fascinating face favored by Dumont), ferry tourists across the river. They have a rowboat but primarily walk through waist-deep water carrying the holidaymakers.

Two police officers from Calais, owing their demeanor and wardrobe to Laurel and Hardy, arrive at the villa, looking for leads into the recent mysterious disappearances of several tourists. Roly-poly Inspector Machin (Didier Després), bursting out of his black bowler and three-piece suit, comments on the “fine view” and in his odd manner of speech and accent interrogates André, “You saw no one disappear yesterday?” His small, redheaded assistant, Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), affects an air of extreme vigilance.

Aude (Juliette Binoche, outrageously operatic) Van Peteghem sister, cousin and Billie’s mother, joins her family. Her endless histrionics inform her facial expressions, vocal range and lavishly feathered and embroidered outfits. Christian, brother and cousin, with his own intellectual and emotional ticks, rounds out the group.

Billie goes to the bay solo and is ferried in Ma Loute’s arms and reaching shore, kisses him. Ma Loute is puzzled by Billie’s outfits which alternate between what is gender appropriate for males and females, but convincing himself that Billie is a girl, falls in love. His mistake leads to violence.

(Describing Billie and the young couple’s relationship, Dumont says, “I’ve always made movies to explore what I didn’t know, so I chose to set up what I’d call a romantic mystification to pose the question of gender, and to bring an extremely contemporary and ambiguous note to a period film.”)

Machin and Malfoy, without body parts (unlike the very different but equally strange “Li’l Quinquin” detectives, Captain Rogier Van der Weyden and Lieutenant Rudy Carpentier, from Dumont’s great four-part miniseries), are stymied, and confused by many people in the Slack Bay environs, who the junior officer calls “queer folk.” Machin states, “If we don’t find nothing, it’s a mystery.”

When Billie, Aude and Christian disappear and are found in the dunes beaten and bloody, with the aid of an inept bugler, the case reaches a conclusion but not a true resolution. The Van Peteghems and the rescuers celebrate at a garden party at the Typhonium. In his speech thanking Machin, who hovers way over the proceedings, inflated like a enormous helium balloon, André quotes Victor Hugo. Aude perpetually annoyed by her brother adds, “We all have our amazing references.”

Dumont’s new film shares its pale palette and slightly overexposed seaside light with “Li’l Quinquin” but unlike the miniseries, it has slack bits. But they’re more than balanced by the film’s underlying macabre joke: both families are cannibals, one literally (Mrs. Buford, a food pusher like most mothers, “Want some more foot?” also admonishes her children as they taunt the three grievously injured Van Peteghems, “Leave that meat be”); and metaphorically, the rich exploiting the working class (as André explains to Machin, intermarriage is “quite the done thing in the grand families of the Nord…creates industrial alliance…capitalism”). “Slack Bay” is also elevated by the exhilaration of watching crème de la crème of French actors devouring the exquisite scenery.

“Slack Bay” will open on Friday, April 21 at the newly renovated Quad Cinema (with a Q&A with Bruno Dumont moderated by Antonio Campos at the 6:55 pm show), and Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (with a Q&A with Bruno Dumont on Saturday, April 21 at the 6:35 pm show). The film will open in Los Angeles on Friday at Laemmle Monica 4-plex and expand to additional cities in the coming months

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