Who I Ate on My Summer Vacation: Slack Bay

slack baySlack Bay
Directed by Bruno Dumont
Opens April 21

Once labeled as part of a “New French Extremity,” Bruno Dumont for years had a reputation as one of the European art-house’s most stalwart killjoys, a Hanekean exponent of austerity and provocation. That began to change with his last film, the shaggy-dog policier Li’l Quinquin: without relinquishing any of his gravity, Dumont revealed (or discovered) himself to be a nimble conductor of majestic, filigreed slapstick. The new Slack Bay is a welcome continuation of Dumont’s new trajectory: something like M. Hulot’s Holiday being interrupted by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” it’s a riotous farce with tragic dimensions, at once both strenuously ridiculous and deeply felt.

Dumont situates the action in a quiet beach town around the turn of the century—in the same coastal region of northern France where he grew up, lives, and has set most of his films—during an especially unquiet few days. As the well-heeled Van Peteghem clan arrives at their family vacation home, the Typhonium (a real-life architectural landmark), a pair of Laurel-and-Hardy-like detectives (Didier Després and Cyril Rigaux) are in town to look into the recent disappearances of several tourists. Meanwhile, in contrast to the luxury enjoyed by the Van Peteghems, the local Brufort family occupy a muddy hovel, eking out whatever meager living they can—digging shellfish, ferrying passengers across the river (in a small boat or, more often, their arms), and by other, less savory enterprises.

The greatest part of the film’s action consists of extended set-pieces of virtuoso foppishness and nincompoopery. Després, surely the cinema’s most corpulent cop since Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, executes pratfall after pratfall without a hint of self-consciousness. Even rolling down hills as if stuck in a barrel, he doesn’t approach the flurry of motion generated by Juliette Binoche, as Aude, the Van Peteghem matriarch, whose conversation comes in heartstopping cadenzas loaded with facial signification and gestures at gestures. Her brother, André (Fabrice Luchini), regards it all with foggy detachment; his wife, Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) seems to exist in a perpetual state of bracketed alarm.

These adults’ blunders and blather stand in counterpoint to the more purposeful, decisive behavior of each family’s teenage scions: the Bruforts’ oldest child, Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), and the Van Peteghems’, Billie (Raph). To the befuddlement of the locals, Billie alternates between boys’ clothes and girls’, including matching wigs for each (her own hair is cut in an anachronistic Macklemore). “I’m a girl dressed as a boy,” she tells Ma Loute; they embark on a tentative romance. Biology may betray her, but Dumont, to his credit, pointedly declines to make his camera complicit.

The high-test clowning on display is, ultimately, gallows humor, an acknowledgement of the stakes involved, not an attempt to trivialize them. Slack Bay matches Moonrise Kingdom in its evocation of the rushing onset and terror of adolescent first love, but locates it within a history and landscape marinated in poison. Both families hide secrets; together, they offer a potent reminder that there’s no experience so outrageous it can’t be assimilated into, and normalized by, daily life. In 2017, this understanding has never seemed more important.

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