A Failed Meditation on Acting

Juliette Binoche in Bruno Dumont’s “Slack Bay.” | KINO LORBER

Juliette Binoche in Bruno Dumont’s “Slack Bay.” | KINO LORBER

Sometimes films turn out to be something completely different from what they promise. French director Bruno Dumont’s “Slack Bay” purports to be a comedy/ mystery about a series of disappearances in 1910 Calais. In reality, it’s about the nature of acting. Dumont has long used non-professional actors, casting them with a brave disregard for both male and female standards of beauty.

In the past, I’ve seen this as an implicit — and progressive — political gesture. The Best Actor Award given to Emmanuel Schotte at Cannes in 1999 for Dumont’s “Humanité” shocked many critics. Even if one thinks “Humanité” is a masterpiece, as I do, Schotte’s performance is so odd that it makes one wonder if his character was intended to be mentally ill. It also destroys any chance of taking the film literally as a detective story.

In “Slack Bay,” Dumont mixes non-professionals and some of France’s biggest stars. Juxtaposing Juliette Binoche, even if her character is supposed to be out of her mind, with a man who looks like he was made up to play Popeye and a woman who seems to have just posed for an anti-meth ad does the latter two no favors. In previous Dumont films, ordinary people existed in their own world and they had as much right to be movie stars as Binoche or Mathieu Amalric. As a director of landscapes, Dumont still has considerable skill, especially since he’s almost as interested in dirt and muck as beauty. As a director of actors, his ability seems to have gone to hell.

Bruno Dumont’s comedy/ mystery falls dismally flat

“Slack Bay” begins just as summer vacation gets underway. The apparent existence of a family of cannibals who prey on tourists around Calais casts a pall over the festivities, and Inspector Machin (Didier Després) seems rather incompetent, he and his parents wandering over the beach. Meanwhile, the extended and rather eccentric Van Peteghem family (whose adult members are played by Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) settles in for a boisterous time.

There are many elements of Dumont’s previous film, “Lil’ Quinquin” (actually a TV miniseries distributed theatrically in the US), present in “Slack Bay”: a duo of cops investigating the central mystery, the constant presence of ominous-acting, if not downright evil children. To me, “Lil’ Quinquin” resembled a Coen brothers reboot of a Robert Bresson film. With “Slack Bay,” Dumont has ditched the Bresson influence but kept the overly broad performances, tendencies toward caricature, and condescension toward the characters that often mar the Coen brothers’ work. Showing a 300-pound man fall over once is slapstick. Having him do it over and over again is cruel.

The fat man/ thin man pairing of cops nods to Laurel & Hardy, and “Slack Bay” desperately aspires to the wit of silent comedy. Instead, it’s painfully unfunny. Humor constantly loses out to bizarre bits of business. Dumont thinks that directing Binoche to yell makes her performance funnier. The rest of the time, his influences seem to be his own previous work — he repeats the levitation scene from “Humanité” several times. He depicts a transgender girl, Billie (Raph), fairly respectfully, but even so she doesn’t escape getting bashed.

The ideas about acting implicit in “Slack Bay,” to the extent that they have any real merit, were expressed better in the avant-garde films of Andy Warhol in the ‘60s and Philippe Garrel in the ‘70s (particularly “Les hautes solitudes,” which was revived by the Metrograph a few months ago). Warhol gave amphetamine addicts a platform to speak for half an hour, while Garrel captured the quickly fading spirit of “Breathless” star Jean Seberg. Their work raised questions about the boundaries of documentary and performance that filmmakers like Robert Greene have based most of their careers on.

At his best, Dumont too was probing what it means — in aesthetic and political terms — to give someone like the previously unemployed Emmanuel Schotte center stage at Cannes. It pains me to say this — having admired almost all his previous films and considered him one of France’s greatest living directors — but now he’s just making freakshows.

SLACK BAY | Directed by Bruno Dumont | In French with English subtitles | Kino Lorber | Opens Apr. 21 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St.; filmlinc.com | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St.; quadcinema.com