Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 21, 2017 3:11 pm 
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A post-Victorian slapstick murder mystery by the sea takes Bruno Dumont in a new even stranger direction

In Ma Loute/Slack Bay, one of the weirdest and most arresting movies you may ever see, the Bruforts are a family of rude sailors who carry softer folks across a shallow bay in their arms. They also practice cannibalism, and that explains the disappearance of a young couple from Lille. This event is being vaguely investigated by inspectors Machin and Malfoy (Didier Després, Chril Rigaud), a Laurel and Hardy-like pair. The Bruforts' eldest son, an angular rube called Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), connects with the daughter - or is it the son? - Billie (Raph) of the haughty Van Peteghem family, who have come to their Egyptian-style manse on the hill for the summer. This might be a love that would cross the class divide, and the sexual one too, since "ma loute" is a feminine term of endearment - but instead it goes bad. The action is set in the early days of automobiles, in 1910, by the sea, near Dumont's usual rather desolate home region of Bailleul, Nord, but we're far from the harsh, intense neorealism of his early films if not from their religious overtones.

An extension in a way of his 2014 mini-series P'tit Quinquin/L'il Quinquin, which also has a pair of bumpkin cops investigating a chain of murders, this is stranger and harder to relate to. It's a costume drama, with elaborate, melodramatic, absurd acting mannerisms. It also has two more name actors. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrice Lucchini join Juliette Binoche, who was there last time. All behave and look peculiar. In the case of Binoche, as Aude Van Peteghem, this is allowed to go much too far: she croons and moans - it's just bad overacting. Lucchini, as André Van Peteghem, comes off better. He is almost unrecognizable, his face looking flat and a little bloated; almost a hunchback, he lurches back and forth, his arms flailing oddly. Brother Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent, Paul Claudel in Dumont's 2013 Camille Claudel) is similar. Everyone tends to fall down a lot. So does the big, bloated Inspector Machin, who rolls down sand dunes and topples into things constantly. Does all this ineptness, these pratfalls, make this a comedy? But what about the cannibalism?

Dumont is always unclassifiable. Hence it should not surprise us that he was meaning here to evoke the haute-bourgeoisie charm of the photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue (at least in his detailed article on the making of the film in Le Monde, Jacques Mandelbaum says so). Or that there is an interrupted outdoor ceremony in celebration of the Virgin Mary that leads Aude to float up into the air, which happens to Machin in the final sequence, when he inflates even more, and breaks away from a rope. Magic realism, surrealism, horror, harsh social satire, slapstick, black Charles Addams comedy form a mixture that is both numbing and hypnotic.

This personal world is rich and fascinating in its way. And it's beautiful: look at the delicate color, and the lovely decor of the Van Peteghem dining room. Watch the romantic, painterly scene of small boats on a stormy sea and listen to the soaring music of Bach at the end. And yet the action lacks the charm of L'il Quinquin or the power of Dumont's strong earlier films. Here, he has lined up two class enemies, a "decadent bourgeoisie and carnivorous proletariat," as Philippe Lagouche of La Voix du Nord put it, in a "ferocious farce" that "Buñuel would have loved."

With the exception of the misfired US-set Twentynine Palms, Dumont made one stunner after another: Life of Jesus, Hunanité, Flanders, the spiritual and violent Hadewijch (NYFF 2009) and Hors Satan command one's utmost attention, almost reverence, even if one is at times also repulsed. Well, Slack Bay/Ma Loute too provides a bracing, unique experience. But Dumont seems to have entered a mannerist phase.

Ma Loute/Slack Bay,122 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition May 2016 and opened in French cinemas simultaneously, to rave reviews (AlloCiné press raging 4.1). Screened for this review in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (UniFrance, Film Society of Lincoln Center) Feb. 2017. US theatrical release begins 21 Apr. 2017 at Lincoln Center and Quad Cinemas in New York. A Kino Lorber release.


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