Right when you thought French cinema couldn’t get any more absurd, auteur filmmaker Bruno Dumont presents a burlesque comedy in the Official Selection, which makes Staying Vertical appear banal in comparison. Ma Loute (Slack Bay) is a delicious dream at first but eventually keeps you tossing and turning from unease. Maybe it’s the folly of its characters. Or the overacting of its cast.
Drenched in white, colors saturated, muted only by the grey skies or sea, the resplendent photography offers a postcard from the Belle Époque period of the turn of the century. There’s a veil, however, that’s never quite lifted, and its humor steadily turns into a farce.
On the Channel Coast in 1919, the Brufort family is busy harvesting mussels from the beach, while the Van Peteghems are driving to their mansion for the summer. Two highly dysfunctional families who both carry horrible secrets and quite a gallery of characters.
Monsieur et Madame Van Peteghem are odd, to say the least. André (Fabrice Luchini) walks with a peculiar gait due to his hunchback, while his sister Aude’s (Juliette Binoche) neurotic personality is of operatic proportions often veering into hysteria. André’s spouse Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, sister of former French First Lady Carla Bruni) is the most restrained of the lot. In fact, she seems normal in comparison. Her brother Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent) is prone to spurts of nonsensical phrases. André also has two mischievous teen daughters and a nephew (or niece), Billie (Raph).
They spend every summer at the villa, Typhonium, perched on the hill with a view straight on the bay. Their days consist of long walks on the beach and just generally oohing and aahing over the beauty of the landscape. And sometimes they fall.
There’s a lot of falling in this film. Everyone trips over at one point, most remarkably Inspector Alfred Machin (Didier Desprès) whose balloon-like corpulence adds a comic element as he rolls like a ball. With his partner-in-fighting-crime Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux) – their duo is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, both in size, behavior and hats – he is investigating the mysterious disappearances plaguing the coast. Several tourists have vanished and the infamous inspectors soon concentrate their attention on Slack Bay, a unique site in the region where the Slack river and the sea join only at high tide.
The Brufort patriarch and his eldest son, Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) also operate as ferrymen taking tourists across the bay in their bat or carrying them over, depending on the tide. But their faces suggest something sinister.
The intrigue is more macabre than thriller – the Bruforts eat more muscles than mussels… Father and son make quite a duo as they kill the tourists they take across the bay. Perhaps hunt is a better word as the victims become food for the whole family. At one point, the matriarch cannibal, holding up a foot, asks her sons, feasting on raw human remains, if they’d like a piece. “A toe perhaps?”
There’s also falling in love. Their banal lives takes a dramatic turn when an unlikely love story sparks between Ma Loute and Billie. (Or is she really a boy like her mother claims? Or a girl dressed as a boy?)
The cartoonish characters may seem endearing at first, but their idiosyncrasies soon become tiresome and all humor is lost. The A-List cast is trying a little hard to be funny, but instead makes you cringe as it begins to veer from slapstick to farce. Luchini’s facial mimics grow irritating and even Juliette Binoche, who is remarkable in her over-the-top antics as a religious mommy dearest, gradually annoys. Her neuroses is too much on our nerves and the film, instead of undulating like the dunes on the coast, loses shape.
As Christian often repeats in English, “We know what to do but we do not do.” It somehow applies here.