It takes brass balls to riff on yourself when you’re an artist, even if you’ve been making art long enough to warrant veteran status. It takes even brassier balls to riff on your most recent work of art in your latest work of art. Let’s just assume, then, that Bruno Dumont has a really hard time walking from point A to point B, because his latest film, Slack Bay, does both by cribbing shamelessly from his 2014 movie-cum-television serial Lil’ Quinquin, a murder mystery set against a bucolic backdrop and swaddled with aggressive irreverence. Slack Bay gives no damns about such things as tonal continuity, or decorum, or logic. It doesn’t care about being coherent or making immediate sense. The film rewards viewers willing to scratch their heads.
And the longer you scratch your head the more the film clicks, which isn’t to say that it ceases to be utterly frigging strange, but rather that at a point your brain naturally adapts to Dumont’s artfully bizarre wavelength. His story normalizes, but it never becomes normal, and that’s a good thing. Movies like Slack Bay justify the existence of the movies as a medium. Maybe that sentiment overstates its quality as a narrative and burdens it with too much hype, but seriously: For all of its relentless weirdness and its unabashed idiosyncrasies, Slack Bay is a work of urgency, the kind of film that wraps its knuckles about your shirt collar and refuses to relinquish its grip until it’s assured of your full, undivided, thoroughly intimidated attentions. Movies like it don’t come along often, and when they do, they deserve to be embraced.
If you’re already sold, you might consider stopping here: A review won’t necessarily do Slack Bay any harm, but it won’t exactly do it any favors, either. It’s an experience best felt totally blind, without the aid of synopses or analyses or examinations, and this, in large part, is to Dumont’s credit. He builds his picture with the barest of essential information and a welcome dearth of exposition. Wander into its frames and you’ll wind up lost within seconds. In most cases, this would be a negative. In the case of Slack Bay, it’s a recommendation.
A family congregates on a rocky shoreline, grimly harvesting mussels. As they trudge off to their home, another family, this one comprised of heedless upper crust types, merrily motors past the first, obnoxiously enraptured by the idyllic scenery around them. The film cuts unceremoniously to a pair of men garbed in black, topped off with bowler hats, bumbling around the beach in the search for persons gone missing; Dumont has shaped them in the image of Laurel and Hardy, as inept a duo as duos come. We careen back and forth, to and fro, from one group of characters to the next without any obvious purpose, until twenty minutes of Slack Bay’s running time has elapsed and the family of fishermen is caught at home by Dumont’s camera, chowing down on the butchered remains of said missing persons. Queue the sound of a record scratching.
Slack Bay perfectly evinces why foreknowledge of a film is so often a curse rather than a blessing. The more you know about Dumont’s plans in advance, the less impact those plans have on us. Grant that this makes the preceding paragraph something of a downer, but grant also that we warned you, and grant further still that Slack Bay is such a unique experience, even in the context of the cannibal-inclusive 2017 pop cultural landscape, that it’s sort of impossible to spoil it. Yes, knowing as close to nothing about it in advance of seeing it is a boon. No, you’re not going to be cheated by knowing the most basic details about the genre-mash Dumont whips up here. Slack Bay is altogether indescribable. It’s ineffable.
And it’s a macabre delight, loaded with deliciously overbearing performances from its stacked cast. Fabrice Luchini and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi play André and Isabelle Van Peteghem,, the patriarch and matriarch of the wealthy, thoroughly oblivious family on holiday along the shores of northern France, where they encounter the Brufort clan, lower class folks in the business of ferrying people across the bay of the title, and in the habit of selectively eating their clientele. In the margins, Didier Després and Cyril Rigaux play inspectors Machin and Malfoy, respectively, a couple of nitwits capable of only the most banal crime scene deductions. (Machin, who may well be the most pitiable character in the film, is a man in perpetual combat with gravity and the laws of physics. By the time Slack Bay ends, he surrenders to them entirely.)
There’s no such thing as too much to Dumont, it seems. Another director might have made an effort to rein in, say, Juliette Binoche, who wanders into the film after a half an hour and some change to play Luchini’s sister with escalating mania. Dumont encourages her instead, gives her free reign to go for broke and play as hysterical as she likes. It’s a hall pass he lends to his entire cast, and at times it threatens to overwhelm Slack Bay’s plot. But it never does. The plot, quite frankly, is even wackier than the performances, and Dumont’s comic sensibilities range in between “insane” and “pitch black.” Even when the film starts to click and we understand where it’s going and what it’s about, it refuses to behave as we expect it to and rejects conventionality in favor of originality.
“Original” might be a strong word considering Lil’ Quinquin’s influence over Slack Bay’s structure, but in copying himself Dumont demonstrates such breathtaking chutzpah that he ends up reinventing himself. Besides, the truth is that you probably won’t see a movie in theaters today that’s anything like Slack Bay, and you might not see one even after the seasons change and we’re staring down December. Just enjoy the fruits of Dumont’s mercilessly twisted vision.
Director: Bruno Dumont
Writer: Bruno Dumont
Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Juliette Binoche, Brandon Lavieville, Raph, Thierry Lavieville, Caroline Carbonnier, Didier Després, Cyril Rigaux
Release Date: April 21, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.