Slack Bay, Bruno Dumont’s fascinating new film, is an object of great peculiarity. It’s my immediate impulse to mention the films it appears to mime, if not outright mock, but in doing so you lose the spirit of its absurdity. And how absurd it becomes! To get lost in its queer structure, to spend the two hours roaming the Channel Coast with such profoundly bizarre characters – ranging from Juliette Binoche’s campy Aude Van Peteghem to Didier Desprès plump constable Alfred Machin (I didn’t know they make humans this big)- and watch its narrative unfold, is a viewing experience that has seared itself into my memory. While I could pass off the experience as merely another idiosyncratic exercise in Dumont’s filmography, it’s more transgressive qualities hover and rattle, inspiring greater consideration than its absurdity suggests.
The film involves two families living along the Channel Coast. The locals, the Bruforts, are a destitute clan that earns coin from literally carrying the affluent across the channel’s shallow knee-deep waters. The family slaves away at the bottom of the bay digging for mussels as a vacationing family comes careening through, making their way to the top of a hill. This is the Van Peteghems, led by the patriarch André (Fabrice Luchini), walking with an apostrophe-shaped hunch, and the matriarch Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), whose high-pitched squeal is among many sound-design revelations of the picture. They bring with them their two daughters and their androgynous niece/nephew, Billie (Raph, in a remarkable debut).
Of all the characters in the film, it’s Billie’s gender-fluid character that bares any semblance to the realities of the world. And her comparative normality is only highlighted when we discover the secrets that each family holds, particularly as it relates to a series of disappearances being investigated by two bumbling Laurel and Hardy-types (Didier Desprès and Cyril Rigaux). Among the many comic delights of the picture is seeing Desprès tumble down sand dunes of the coast, squawking for his partner with each barreling rotation.
The film’s sexual politics are, if not entirely incisive, bluntly frank. As Billie befriends Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), one of the Brufort boys, she expresses that she is “a girl disguised as a boy”. Confused yet willing, Ma Loute carries on with his relationship with the Billie, only to lash out aggressively when he realizes that she is indeed trans. Dumont keenly observes the moment; for a film that relishes in the ludicrous, it’s this Ma Loute’s retaliation that grounds the film in an all too harsh reality. If Slack Bay exists, it’s for this moment, for this critique of our inherently illogical commitment to mores that prevents us from ever achieving a degree of transcendence – from ever actually becoming the helium balloon that oversees the seaside.