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Review: Bruno Dumont goes unexpectedly light with wacko French comedy ‘Slack Bay’

Juliette Binoche as Aude Van Peteghem, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Isabelle Van Peteghem and Fabrice L
Juliette Binoche, left, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrice Luchini in the film “Slack Bay.”
(Kino Lorber)

Before unveiling his parodic miniseries “Li’l Quinquin” in 2014, French director Bruno Dumont might have claimed the title of Filmmaker Least Likely to Make a Comedy. But now the creator of such deliberately paced immersions in bleak naturalism as “Humanité” and “Twentynine Palms” continues his walk on the wacky side with the bizarro period piece “Slack Bay.”

Set in 1910 against the wild coastal beauty of northern France, near Calais, the movie places the haves and have-nots in discomforting proximity. On one side of the titular bay lives a family of hardscrabble laborers; on the other is a vacationing clan of well-off, inbred nitwits. The deck might seem stacked, but nobody is innocent as Dumont, ever the provocateur, salts his seaside farce with cannibalism and incest for good measure.

Though the combination of social critique and unhinged laughs doesn’t always jell, the movie is quite gloriously a thing unto itself, even as it draws upon obvious inspirations. Falling somewhere on the surrealism scale between Luis Buñuel and Monty Python, it offers the particular pleasure of seeing a trio of superlative actors — Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi — diving headlong into slapstick, at times with cringe-inducing mastery.

They play the Van Peteghems, whose name the bumbling chief police inspector, investigating the disappearance of a number of vacationers, invariably gets wrong. Soon after Isabelle (Bruni Tedeschi) and André (Luchini) set up house for the season at their pretentiously named Typhonium, a hilltop villa in the “Ptolemaic style,” his sister Aude (Binoche) arrives amid a flurry of operatic screeches and air kisses, a Gallic kindred spirit to Florence Foster Jenkins, and far more delusional.

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For the buffoonish and endlessly ineffectual Van Peteghems, affectation knows no bounds. Viewing the world through a befuddled yet condescending squint, the hunched and shuffling André is at a loss no matter what the situation; an old-fashioned carving knife and a newfangled dune buggy vex him equally. For all of them, including Isabelle’s simpering brother Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent), every declaration of rapture, whether over the wisteria, a blackbird’s song or the locals, is a self-aggrandizing gesture, a barely veiled shout of “Look at me and how sensitive I am to beauty!”

To winning effect, Dumont has peopled his burlesque with nonprofessionals from the region as well as the formidable screen vets. A real-life father and son play two of the Bruforts, year-round residents of Slack Bay whose quaint simplicity the bourgeois interlopers marvel at as if they’re gazing at figures on a canvas.

When they aren’t gathering mussels from tidal pools, the gravel-voiced patriarch known as the Eternal (Thierry Lavieville) and his eldest son, the gangly Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), are ferrymen of a sort — the sort that uses a boat only when the water level requires it. Most of the time they carry their fussily dressed passengers in their arms. That unwonted intimacy between client and service provider is a brilliant touch, upending the assumptions of a newborn industrial age, and no less resonant for the 21st century.

Moving back and forth between the two families are the chief inspector, the rotund-bordering-on-spherical Machin (Didier Després), and his right-hand man, the compact Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux). With their bowler hats and contrasting physiques, they’re an exaggerated riff on Laurel and Hardy. Machin makes creaking noises when he moves and spends a fair share of time rolling down the dunes, as bending isn’t a practical option. With the character’s corny idioms and stilted slang, Dumont further punctures detective-yarn tropes.

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But solving the case is beside the point. Long before the police figure it out, the audience knows who’s responsible for the vanishing tourists. As always, Dumont is interested in barbarity, but here he’s more concerned with the absurdity of pretense, and the contrasting purity of the romance between Ma Loute and Billie, Aude’s gender-nonconforming child (played by another screen newbie, a high school student using the pseudonym Raph). Billie’s androgyny confounds the detectives, as do many things about the Van Peteghems. More burning than “whodunit” are such matters as “lass or lad?” and “cousin or brother-in-law?”

Running through the ludicrous events is Christian’s refrain, “We know what to do, but we do not do,” a confession more honest and damning than he might realize. Few characters survive the comic doings unscathed. But under the cleansing summer light of the Opal Coast, exquisitely captured by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, some of them manage to do something that Dumont, uncharacteristically, achieves with the film: They defy gravity.

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‘Slack Bay

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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