Bruno Dumont’s filmography has found unity through a prevailing belief in the existence of opposing good and evil forces—and in the transcendence that a genuinely provocative conflation of the two can bring. His mode of expression is usually noncommittal with regard to any particular moral stance, only superficially based in matters of faith, and yet entirely humanist.
The run of films from Dumont’s 1997 debut, The Life of Jesus, to the minimalist two-hander Hors Satan, from 2013, represents a kind of closed circuit: Each film adjusted its social and philosophical points of focus to probe the polarizing natures that shape human behavior, all conducted in a style of austere, distinctly European arthouse filmmaking. Dumont’s 2014 murder-mystery miniseries Li’l Quinquin largely exhausted that form (with it, he expanded his tonal vocabulary with broad comedic strokes), but the end game turned out to be much the same, as the unforced rhythms and pastoral visions of the French countryside and its cattle lulled us into a false sense of serenity to conceal an undertow of primal, unaccountable human darkness.
Slack Bay takes Dumont much further afield. It’s a full-on slapstick comedy, set along France’s Channel Coast in 1910, and it suggests a cut-and-dry class commentary in its clash between two families: the Buforts, native mussel fishermen, and the Van Peteghems, rich aristocrats who invade the scenic coast through the summer months. But this being Dumont, there’s no easy side to take: The natives turn out to be terrifying cannibals and the tourists are even more emphatically grotesque, rendered nearly immobilized by absinthe drinking and a long-hidden history of inbreeding.
Cruelty here can feel cheap, perhaps a result of Dumont not knowing how to effectively command comedy yet.
Caught in the middle, and with whom our sympathies seem most intended to lie, are the Popeye-esque Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), the Buforts’ eldest son, and the gender-fluid teen Billie (Raph), from the Van Peteghem clan, who strike up a romance, oblivious to the evils of their respective families. There’s also a detective story here, one more or less recycled from the superior Li’l Quinquin, in which a couple of typically bumbling investigators (Didier Desprès and Cyril Rigaux) try to crack the case of the mysterious disappearances in the area. But where Dumont’s previous film let the tension of its mystery brace a nearly three-hour plot, the disillusion of uncertainty about the crimes in this film lets its two hours go slack.
Granted, Dumont is not all that interested in the investigative elements in Slack Bay, but rather the further social dimension of interest it affords him. The working-class detectives put their own repugnant practices on display, turning a stakeout into a peepshow, fawningly sucking up to the rich tourists on the hill, and mocking Billie for his/her inconsistent gender identification. Dumont retaliates against the chief detective with a steady procession of fat jokes. Which is to say that the cruelty here can feel pretty cheap, perhaps a result of Dumont not yet knowing how to effectively command comedy.
That’s certainly an issue when it comes to the Van Peteghems, most of whom are played by famous French thespians like Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini as cartoons. Binoche in particular is borderline intolerable, left to her own indulgences as the scenery-chewing sideshow she hasn’t allowed herself to be in ages. Clearly Dumont wants her heightened silliness to be as much a catalyst for deeper emotional engagement, in its way, as uncompromising ultra-violence was throughout his first cycle of films.
Occasionally he gets there too: One dinner table scene finds characters coming to terms with long-repressed secrets through weirdly revealing jags of crying and laughing. But more often the tone is just too schizophrenic. A late attempt to galvanize all the disparate parts with a supernatural flourish doesn’t seem to represent Dumont’s usual interest in the consequences of human nature so much as an indifference toward his characters fate.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.