Tag Archives: French

335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
  • The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator , the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
  • This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.

Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected Continue reading 335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

THE JACQUES RIVETTE COLLECTION

Included in the set:

Duelle (1976)

Noroit (1976)

Merry-Go-Round (1978/1983)

Still from Duelle (1976)
Scene from “Duelle” (1976)

It’s heartening that lived long enough to witness a renewed interest in his work, and a resurgence in its availability, before his death in early 2016. Part of the group of directors who ushered in the French New Wave (along with Truffaut, , Rohmer, and Chabrol), Rivette made two features, Paris Belongs To Us (1961) and La Religieuse [The Nun] (1967) before changing his working methods. Influenced by an interview with , the events of May 1968, and improvisational theater, this shift towards improvised performance and experimentation resulted in L’amour Fou [Mad Love] (1969) and in pushing the aesthetic further with Out 1 (1970), followed by Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

A good portion of his films are available on DVD, although some of those were not the original versions (usually cut by the distributors due to time restraints). Fortunately, that situation is now being rectified by releases such as this one, which concentrates on some of Rivette’s 1970’s output that’s been difficult to view since the films’ initial release.

The films in the collection were the result of Rivette re-teaming with the producer of Out 1, Stephane Tchal Gadjieff, to do four films that were planned to be loosely interconnected. As events played out, only two related films, Duelle and Noroit, were made; a third was started, but production stalled and was abandoned. One more film, Merry-Go-Round, was completed in 1978, but didn’t see a release until 1983.

Duelle and Noroit were shot back-to-back, and as part of the planned four film cycle, the interconnections are very strong. An integral part of both films is the use of live music performed by musicians onscreen, and both involve an element of fantasy. Unlike Rivette’s previous two films, which utilized improvisation from the actors, these were scripted.

Duelle plays as a conglomeration of , influenced by (notably The Seventh Victim) and , with a subtle fantastical element. It starts out as a thriller involving a search for a valuable gemstone, but events turn out to be orchestrated by two opposing supernatural adversaries—the Daughter of the Sun (Bulle Oglier) and the Daughter of the Moon (Juliet Berto)—engaged in a battle-by-proxy utilizing mortals as pawns.

Noroit is a somewhat loose adaptation of the Jacobean play “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” cast as a pirate adventure and the major roles gender-flipped towards women. Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) with the help of her accomplice, Erika (Kika Markham), plots and enacts revenge against a group of pirates, led by Giulia (Bernadette Lafont). It also has roots in elements of Duelle, as more preternatural events occur by film’s end.

Merry-Go-Round retains the live-music-performed-onscreen element of the previous two films, but downplays, if not completely eliminates, the fantasy. Two strangers, Ben () and Leo (Maria Schneider) are in Paris to meet a mutual friend—Leo’s sister Elisabeth—who does not show up. They band together to locate her, which leads them all around Paris where they encounter a variety of characters who may have some connection to Leo’s (presumably) dead father and a small fortune of 20 million francs. It sounds straightforward, but there’s also what appear to be disconnected side narratives of Leo and Ben, set on a beach and in a forest, in conflict with one another.

As a whole, this set provides a look at some fascinating, yet flawed films; which, one could argue is part of the charm of Rivette’s work. If your introduction to Rivette was Celine and Julie Go Boating (criminally still not available in the U.S. on disc), and you felt adventurous enough to see what the fuss was over Out 1, then this collection is the logical next step in your Rivette study. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I’d recommend seeing Celine and Julie and Out 1 first before jumping into the Collection.

The Arrow Films limited edition boxset includes both Blu-ray and DVD discs for the films, along with a booklet with essays from Jonathan Rosenbaum, Mary M. Wiles, Brad Stevens and Nick Pinkerton. Extras include Scenes From A Parallel Life, a featurette featuring an archival interview with Rivette about the films; interviews with actresses Bulle Oglier and Hermine Karagheuz; and an interview with Rosenbaum. The UK release also included Out 1 in the set, but as Carlotta Films had the rights for the U.S. release, the US set contains only the three films mentioned.

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

CAPSULE: DOUBLE LOVER (2017)

L’amant double 

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marine Vacth, Jérémie Renier, Jacqueline Bisset, Myriam Boyer

PLOT: A young woman suffering from phantom pains in her stomach seeks the help of a psychiatrist, falls in love with him, and then comes to suspect he is harboring a secret about his past.

Still from Double Lover (L'amant double)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ozon’s latest is a sexual psychothriller that falls into the category of “might have been shortlisted in the earlier days of this project, but with only forty slots remaining…” If you like movies that are mysterious and spice their eroticism with a sense of dangerous perversity, this is one to check out, Litsable or not. My theatrical viewing did include one walkout—usually a promising sign—but I do have to qualify it by saying that it was a little old lady who probably thought she was walking into a screening of the latest Fifty Shades of Grey.

COMMENTS: We have to be coy describing Double Lover so as not to reveal too much of the plot. Fortunately, the movie features an unreliable narrator, thereby lending itself to an unreliable review that may mislead. For example, it’s safe to say (and perhaps even implied in the title) that Double Lover revolves around a love triangle. Or does it?

You see, Chloe, the protagonist, hallucinates freely. She first seeks psychiatric help for phantom pains in her belly that have no gynecological cause. (The film is sexually explicit, if not quite pornographic, but even more so it’s gynecologically explicit—the very first shot is a speculum’s-eye view of Chloe in stirrups receiving a very thorough internal exam). With nothing physically wrong with her, she’s sent to Paul, a therapist who soon falls for her and ethically ends their professional relationship, moving his former patient into his apartment instead. Although Chloe seems cured, she still had lingering pains and mommy issues, and therefore seeks out another psychiatrist to plumb the depths of her soul. In this one, she thinks she’s found the perfect counterbalance to sweet-natured Paul…

With its theme of improbable doubles, the scenario is slightly ian, though more explicitly hallucinatory. Other themes recall Dead Ringers, and a shocking dream sequence unabashedly references a similar sex dream found in Cronenberg‘s movie.  The atmosphere is ian, especially in the oft-oppressive sound design. The hallucinations are usually of the sort where someone shows up in a place where they could not possibly be, although there is a lovely moment when the abstract art at the museum Chloe works in as a guard bleeds into her oncoming dream. The tone is tense throughout, and the sex scenes can sometimes be difficult to watch as they get kinkier and play teasingly with questions of consent. If I had one reservation to the whole thing, it would be that the ending is too pat—although there’s also the mandatory coda implying Chloe’s turbulent psyche is not yet wholly calmed.

The acting is a high point. Marine Vacth, who might be ‘s long lost twin, conveys fragility, but with a tough survivor’s core. Jérémie Renier shows range, from the nurturing psychotherapist to a rampaging sexual predator. Jacqueline Bisset is a welcome sight, and neighbor Myriam Boyer, who keeps her beloved pet cat stuffed on the mantle in her long-departed and since untouched daughter’s room, adds both light comic relief and an additional air of mystery.

is a prolific, chameleonic filmmaker who alternates between slim, popular comedies like Potiche and more provocative, sexually charged thrillers like this (with the occasional magical realist fantasy thrown into the mix). Double Lover was adapted (loosely) from the Joyce Carol Oates novel “Lives of the Twins.” Joyce liked it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Double Lover may not represent Ozon in peak form but it’s too weirdly entertaining to dismiss out-of-hand.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
  • Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
  • De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
  • Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
  • Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.


Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

LIST CANDIDATE: AVIDA (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Benoît Delépine, Gustave de Kervern

FEATURING: Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine, Eric Martin, Velvet

PLOT: A simpleton stumbles into a job at a zoo and is conscripted into a heist involving the theft of a dog; through a mishap, the thieves end up leading the pet’s owner up the side of a mountain so that she may die there.

Still from Avida (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Avida is deliberately surreal, piling offbeat scenarios on top of mysterious images until they constitute a puzzle to be solved. Ironically, the film’s final image suggests a level of logic that is almost too sensible for all that has preceded it.

COMMENTS: Avida sets up a theme right from the get-go, as a picador psyches himself to go into the ring against a formidable opponent. Once his foe is revealed to be a rhinoceros, we get our first taste of the film’s surreal view of the battle between man and animal. From there, we meet our mute hero working as a dog trainer whose job seems to be primarily a target for the animals’ aggression. But when he is too distracted to help his employer in a moment of need, he finds himself adrift in the world. It’s like Being There, but with more barking.

Our theme quickly gives way to a picaresque journey in which the nameless protagonist reveals that he has no idea how to get on in the world. He attacks a golfer for his shoes, pushes down a woman to take her wristwatch (she seems disappointed that his intentions are not more lascivious), and raids a fancy restaurant to steal some lobsters. His visit to a ian job fair lands him at a zoo, where a new array of characters and settings emerges.

The film has the feel of a sketch show, with scenes careening from one to the other. Two men shooting each other with pellet guns give way to a restaurant where the zoo’s animals are on the menu. There’s a plot, but only just enough, and characters who are only germane insofar as their names give them purpose: the Distracted Nanny, the Benevolent Singer, the Man With the Head of Scotch Tape. Avida doesn’t think about these people for too long, and neither should you.

In its first half, Avida is frequently funny, with choices that amuse through surprise. The filmmakers clearly subscribe to the view that anything seen long enough will become amusing in time, as when a bodyguard who has failed to stop the dognapping calmly reaches into an unexpectedly deep arsenal to take aim at the perpetrators. Eventually, though, we meet up with the title character (the only one given a name) who demands that the Mute and his colleagues deliver to her death in a barren wasteland filled with mirrors and armoires, and the humor gives way to a look at humanity’s more pathetic traits.

What Avida is ultimately about is unclear and up for debate. The final image, and the only one in color, is a Dali-esque painting that seems to suggest that everything we have seen is the reasonable explanation for such an artwork, or perhaps that all Surrealist images have their origin in the kind of hijinks that have unfolded before us. The message is further muddied with an epigram from the Native American leader Chief Seattle that cautions against carelessness toward our animal friends—hearkening back to the early theme, but also reminding us that it hasn’t been relevant to the film for quite some time. Avida is idiosyncratic to a fault, and that fault seems to be a lack of trust. The movie bends over backwards to justify its quirks, rather than just letting them be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere between Monty Python, Jacques Tati and a slideshow of New Yorker cartoons, this critique of life’s cruel inconsistency confirms the French co-directors’ gift for reinterpreting surrealism in a humorously modern key. Though their often disgusting imagery may alienate the squeamish and send fans of conventional comedy running for the exit, pic’s very wildness could earn it a cult following via festivals and maybe attract younger audiences.” – Deborah Young, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Donya, who deemed it “an intelligent beautiful poetic ‘weird” movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

LIST CANDIDATE: SLACK BAY (2016)

Ma Loute

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Brandon Lavieville, Raph

PLOT: During the holiday season on the beaches near Calais, two young people from opposite worlds discover a mutual attraction, but complications arise from the behavior of their quirky families and an ongoing investigation into unexplained disappearances among vacationers.

Still from Slack Bay (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The film goes all in on the oddness, contrasting over-the-top dramatics with an aggressively blasé attitude toward the more salacious elements of its story. Writer/director Bruno Dumont wants very badly to put you off your guard, mixing in livewire topics like cannibalism, incest, and gender confusion with characters who are carefully calculated to be ridiculous. But the effort is so determined, so blatantly deliberate, that there’s a case to be made that the weird factor is reduced by the strain behind it.

COMMENTS: Not long after the first run of Twin Peaks flamed out in the dual crucibles of American television production and audience fickleness, ABC decided to see what other ideas David Lynch might have up his sleeve. In the wake of perhaps the moodiest show in TV history, Lynch decided to mix things up by proffering, of all things, a situation comedy. Although possessing a quirky and dark sense of humor, Lynch was hardly anybody’s idea of the next Garry Marshall, and the resulting show—a true curio called “On the Air,” about a failing TV network in the 1950s—was so strange and off-putting in its attempts at comedy that the network pulled the plug after three episodes. There’ll be no latter-day revival for that Lynch project.

It would come as no surprise to learn that Bruno Dumont had stumbled upon “On the Air” and been suitably inspired. Known for the intense gravitas of his raw autopsies of life in Cannes Grand Prix-winning films like L’Humanité and Flanders, Dumont surprised everyone by throwing in with the comedians for Li’l Quinquin, a French TV miniseries that answered the burning question, “What if ‘Broadchurch’ were played for laughs?” Slack Bay continues that dalliance with silliness, viewing a number of serious themes through a filter of absurdity.

The most visible example of this is the extremely broad acting of almost everyone in the cast, resembling the broad physicality of the earliest sound films. Nearly every actor seems to have been given the note, “Go over the top and keep going.” The vacationing family, the nitwit Van Peteghems, revels in stretching every character choice to its extreme. Luchini’s hunchbacked, perpetually perplexed father is so flummoxed by basic tasks that it takes him several minutes to try to cut a piece of meat. (He is unsuccessful.) Bruni Tedeschi is eternally frazzled until a surprising burst of flight provides her with much-needed inner calm. And then there’s Binoche, attempting to become the dictionary definition of the word “histrionic.” She reacts in the biggest way possible to everything, so that when situations finally seem to justify an outsize response (such as an anguished revelation of a family secret), she has Chicken Littled herself into unbelievability.

But it’s not just the upper-class twits whom Dumont captures at their looniest. There are the taciturn Bruforts, who mostly grimace and grunt, barely speaking except to lash out at each other. And then there are the two detectives who stumble across the countryside like a Gallic , utterly incapable of putting one clue together with another. Didier Després’ Machin is a particular idiot: corpulent to the point of being unable to move around effectively (his repeated falls are Slack Bay’s nod to slapstick), he confronts everyone he meets with an aggressive tone and is defiantly oblivious to information directly in front of him. When he too unexpectedly takes to the skies, his experience is utterly different: inspired by nothing, angry, and only resolved by shooting him down.

The closest thing to normal is a young romantic couple. Played with a charming lack of guile by novice actors, Billie and Ma Loute are appropriately awkward, coy, and relatable in ways that set them apart from everyone else in the film. Well, as relatable as a couple can be when they consist of a gender-fluid teenager and a tight-lipped young man who whacks people over the head with an oar so they can be served up as food. It’s almost as though Dumont is playing a game in which you have to decide what makes a character more tolerable: acts or behaviors. In Slack Bay, he seems to lean toward behaviors.

The question of whether or not Slack Bay is weird relies heavily on whether you think Dumont is staging an elaborate put-on. Everything is so broadly vaudevillian, it’s easy to suspect that he’s purposely having a go at us. But I choose to believe that he earnestly wants to explore the human condition via these crazed antics. Maybe, like Lynch in sitcom mode, everything will inevitably filter through his old sensibilities, which will certainly carry over to other styles and genres, like his most recent film: a musical about Joan of Arc.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just as you near the end of your patience with an item of slapstick farce, something weird and wonderful straight out of a Kevin McSherry painting comes into the frame to transfix you… The shenanigans oscillate from dark and distorted to joyously daft but they may prove too willfully eccentric for some viewers. Others, however, may find delight in such gay abandon.”–Hilary A. White, Sunday Independent (contemporaneous)