'Slack Bay' ('Ma Loute'): Cannes Review

Ma Loute 3 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Weird and arresting.

The latest from controversial French auteur Bruno Dumont, starring Juliette Binoche, is a period slapstick murder mystery set on on the northern French coast around 1910.

Slack Bay (Ma Loute) is a one-of-a-kind outing from perennially outre French auteur Bruno Dumont, a stylized slapstick art film that commingles in-bred upper-class twits and murderous roughneck fishermen on the northern French coast, circa 1910; it’s like an unholy alliance between Jacques Tati and Euro-period Joseph Losey, one that will justifiably cause many viewers to wonder — what have we just seen?

More weirdly fascinating than genuinely good, this beautifully made, bracingly eccentric and often arch film will generate a measure of strong support but will bewilder more than entrance most traditional art-house regulars.

The basic nuts and bolts of Dumont’s strange little tale pertain to a police investigation of the disappearances of several people in a small windswept community on the English Channel. Dumont immediately makes clear that the local hillbilly-like Brufort clan is responsible — they are, in fact, cannibals. But the authorities, represented by a Laurel and Hardy-like team of police inspectors named Machin and Malfoy (Didier Despres and Cyril Rigaux), are clownlike bumblers in black suits and bowler hats without a clue, so the murders continue unabated and unattributed.

Perched on a rise high above the windswept beaches and tidepools, across which the Bruforts eke out a meager living hand-carrying local swells and tourists, is the weirdly Egyptian-style, concrete-covered mansion called The Typhonium, where the haughty Van Peteghem family resides. To call them eccentric would be an understatement, especially where concerns the lord of the manor, Andre, a hunchback who, when walking, rhythmically swings his arms almost as if dancing and sputters often charming nonsense; in the role, Fabrice Luchini very nearly steals the film.

Andre’s handsome wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) has a tendency to lose her balance and keel over, although not as often as does Inspector Machin, an enormously fat fellow who huffs and puffs trying to traverse the sand dunes in a futile search for clues while his diminutive partner tags along. Machin’s local dialect is so shot through with archaic and obscure usage that contemporary French viewers need subtitles to grasp it.

Dumont lays on the slapstick, nutty sayings and arch posturing to such an extent that it’s immediately clear he intends the film as a goof of sorts, but only up to a point. The unstated class warfare continues, led by the vicious pater familias (Thierry Lavieville), but is undercut by the quickly blossoming romance between the latter’s ungainly (and equally vicious) son, called Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), and Billie (Raph), a striking, mature-looking teenager who has a deep voice and is dressed and coiffed like a boy but says she’s a girl “in disguise.”

Billie is the offspring of the haughty, madly theatrical Aude Van Peteghem (Juliette Binoche), Andre’s sister, who swans about, makes pronouncements and self-dramatizes to an insufferable degree. Even though the self-consciously artificial acting style has been established from the outset, Binoche takes it too far and Dumont indulges the star far too much; a few trims of her excessive carrying-on would not be out of order.

By contrast, the mysterious Billie benefits from saying very little. Ma Loute, a ruffian who looks like a tidewater rat with dreadful teeth, is seemingly softened and transformed by this exquisite, mysterious creature, and a conventional film would have used this star-crossed romance to demolish the class divide.

Ever the contrarian, however, Dumont has other things in mind, and the conclusion, without giving anything away, weirdly combines ever-more-extreme physical humor with soaring lyrical music, the results of which prove simultaneously arresting and puzzling, which is entirely in line with the nutty nature of the film itself.

Providing continuous and bracing pleasure is the production’s look, with Guillaume Deffontaines’ sharp, crystalline cinematography making vivid use of the windswept expanses of empty beaches, rocky cliffs, tide pools and rough channel waters. Witty costuming also is used to tart effect.

Production companies: 3B Productions, Arte French Cinema, Pallas Film, Twentytwenty Vision
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Brni Tedeschi, Jean 
Luc Vincent, Raph, Brandon Lavieville, Didier Despres, Cyril Rigaux, Thierry Lavieville
Director-screenwriter: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Guillaume Deffontaines
Production designer: Riton Dupire Clement
Editors: Bruno Dumont, Basile Belkhiri

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

Not rated, 122 minutes