Film direction is often associated with thematic preoccupations and the movement of the camera, but a related and under-acknowledged strand of authorship is the movement of actors through space. Howard Hawks and Michelangelo Antonioni were masters of stylized human movement, and Richard Linklater superbly reveled in this kind of expressiveness in Everybody Wants Some!! Relatedly, the tonal evolution of Bruno Dumont’s recent films, Li’l Quinquin and Slack Bay, is rooted in the choreography of the actors. Dumont’s prior films are driven by a stark and distinctly European severity, embodied by stillness in the frame, while his recent work adds to that sensibility an explicit strain of physical comedy that serves as an auto-critique of Dumont’s predilections while deepening the senses of horror and tragedy at the center of his narratives. Dumont’s formalism is presently charged with a spark of simultaneously controlled and spontaneous mystery.
As with Li’l Quinquin, Slack Bay abounds in comedy that’s difficult to quantify. The film’s sense of humor thrives on a contrast between absurd physicality, dire situations, gorgeous, meticulously framed landscapes, and the poignancy that arises as a result of this juxtaposition. The characters here are divided into three groups: the Van Peteghems, a rich, inbred family that suggests an obscene version of Arrested Development’s Bluth clan; the Bruforts, poor laborers who work as threadbare ferrymen; and the law enforcement, who’re more socially advantaged members of the proletariat than the Bruforts, led by Inspectors Machin (Didier Després) and Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux). Throughout the film, Dumont and his cast frequently highlight the social differences between these factions through varying movement, creating a cacophonic symphony of gestures. (There’s something especially resonant, satirically, in how the Bruforts forgo a boat and literally carry their rich clients across the water in their arms, dispensing with any fashion of sanitizing lower-class servility.)
The Van Peteghems are mostly bumblers who suffer from self-absorption so pronounced it resembles mental disorder; they move purposefully with little purpose, arbitrarily collapsing within the frame as their delusions clash with reality. By contrast, Machin is weirdly graceful in his clumsiness; a huge man who resembles Oliver Hardy, clad in black suit and bowler hat, he’s unable to bend at the waist, and resorts to rolling down dunes or collapsing onto the ground to afford himself a closer glance at evidence. His matter-of-factness about his body, and the adjustments he makes to accommodate it, afford him an unusual and haunting dignity. The Bruforts don’t have the privilege of idiocy or awkwardness of any sort, as they must live by their wits, and so they move with lean and practical bitterness, their visages often frozen in a manner familiar to the characters of Dumont’s more overtly miserable films.
Slack Bay’s pleasure resides in the mastery of Dumont’s craftsmanship, particularly in how he plays his various elements off of one another within a framework that weds The Rules of the Game with a whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie. The film is set in 1910 in a northern seaside village, which the Van Peteghems visit during the summer, living in a house coated in Egyptian marble, which resembles a vast observatory that’s perched awkwardly over the beach. André Van Peteghem (Fabrice Luchini) is what passes for the family’s patriarch, a hunchbacked ne’er-do-well who can’t even carve a mid-afternoon roast, who moves with an arrhythmic, somehow humble and egotistical shuffle that embodies his stature as a runt inadvertently thrust by fate toward the head of the litter. Strolling down a hallway, André reverses his march when called to check on his wife, as Dumont’s camera follows him in an amusingly rigid dolly that suggests the limitations of André’s imagination. It doesn’t occur to the man to simply turn around. André’s sister, the broadly drawn Aude (Juliette Binoche), is stuck in a singular mode of her own, as she’s unable to descend from her elevated opera of snobbery and attention-getting hysteria, which reaches its crescendo when she checks for just the right seashells to weep into in the church by the beach.
Slack Bay is a remarkable film, yet it’s also hermetic and pat. The solution to the mystery at its center (where are those tourists disappearing to?) is easily guessed and resolved early on for the audience, who’re afforded more information than most of the characters. The narrative’s inevitability is part of the film’s joke, as is the bluntness of the class designations, as the obviousness parallels the overt injustices that we ignore and live with on a daily basis. Yet Dumont lands his point early on and keeps landing it with little variation: The rich are gross and awful, the poor are gross and awful, and bureaucracy exists between these poles, maintaining an illusion of control that’s occasionally breached by a miracle that changes little. Slack Bay settles into theoretical redundancy. Dumont hasn’t shaken the nihilism of his past work: His mode of physical abstraction is a sophisticated form of human reduction, a rarefied way of expressing an ordinary sentiment.