Slack Bay is an odd beast. At first glance, this subtitled film seems like your average whodunit set in a small French coastal town where tourists are going missing. With the eccentric characters and lavish period-piece costumes, viewers could be forgiven for expecting an Agatha Christie style murder-mystery where motives are unspooled and plot-threads neatly dovetailed together. However, such expectations are quickly dashed, as the titular Slack Bay exists in a microcosm of absurdity, where logic is non-existent and a sane man a pipe dream.
Fans of director and screenwriter Bruno Dumont will be not be surprised. Slack Bay carries much of his trademark signature style, including black comedy and an unsettling penchant for violence. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this film is that the grisly murder spree isn’t used to build tension or drive the plot – in fact, the mystery is solved for the audience before the second act even begins. Instead, it’s simply another grim joke in a meandering story of doomed love between two people at opposite ends of the poverty scale.
Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville) is a taciturn youth from a poverty-stricken family, making a hand-to-mouth living gathering oysters and hauling rich tourists across the bay. Billie (Raph) is a mischievous upper-class girl visiting wealthy relatives in their holiday home. Both their lives take a left turn when attraction ignites between them, but their budding romance is complicated by their respective families.
Billie’s family is played mostly for laughs, as a parody of aristocracy turned up to eleven. Between her inept uncle (Fabrice Luchini), housework-obsessed aunt (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and attention-seeking mother (Juliette Binoche), they wouldn’t recognise reality if it threatened them with an oar. Ma Loute’s parents initially appear normal by comparison, but appearances are deceiving. Their insanity is just of a different flavour, calling to mind Jonathon Swift’s grimly satirical essay “A Modest Proposal,” where desperation turns the unthinkable to logical, even normal. Between the antics of these two families, events devolve from the darkly comedic to the absurd and Billie and Ma Loute’s relationship slides to an inevitable, messy conclusion.
The real treasure is the cast, who do a phenomenal job keeping the script afloat. However, the wandering narrative makes it difficult to really care. Given that there’s a tragic love story, dark family secrets, and murder most foul afoot, it’s disappointing so much time is dedicated to scenes like a random car accident and painfully stretched out dinner parties. Absurdism can excuse any amount of miraculous levitation or whimsical escapism, but it can’t excuse boredom. Think a Monty Python movie with all the energy sucked out of it.
Ironically the most interesting scenes are those between Ma Loute and Billie, whose interactions are conducted mostly in long intense silences. In another movie, this would have been problematic, but against the constant insipid nonsense of Billie’s family, silence becomes the most authentic form of communication. They might not know the source of each other’s pain, but they can recognise a kindred spirit. Raph and Lavieville’s comfortable chemistry lends itself perfectly to these two tragic figures trapped by the expectations of their respective worlds.
Some viewers might appreciate the vicious social commentary lurking beneath the humour, but for the average moviegoer Slack Bay might just be too strange a fare. There are some laughs to be had, but the bloody gore and silly slapstick never quite gel together, creating a disconcerting feeling that may or may not be deliberate. Even the bittersweet ending is not that sweet, ending on a distinctly sour note. No one, it seems, ever really escapes Slack Bay.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10
••••• Screening at the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2017 •••••