Slack Bay (Ma Loute)

 

Directed by Bruno Dumont

Dumont, that most unexpected of comedy film makers, is back in his beloved Pas de Calais for what you might call another take on the same scenario as his masterpiece of 2014, P’tit Quinquin. To expect such brilliance twice would be too much, maybe, but Slack Bay is great entertainment, even if it does not challenge and amaze in quite the same way. Quinquin-lite, you might say. We have again two bumbling detectives, again mysterious deaths among the dunes and cliffs and water-colour skies, again a set of oddball, quirky-looking characters, again young love. But this time the crimes are less grotesque, the detectives less darkly funny, the people less physically odd, the young love less intense and shorter-lived. And this time, we have the posh folk .

The action takes place in 1910, where we meet two disparate social sets of people. There’s little sense of any intent towards social criticism, both are extreme caricatures, the caricatures they would make of each other. The poor live by mussel gathering and ferrying folk across an inlet in their little boat, or when the tide is down by, to their surprise, carrying them bodily across. Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), a long-faced youth and his family of dour parents and perpetually scrapping little brothers, are a grim-faced, graceless, unreadable lot, whose unsavoury meat larder soon makes it evident that the ferry service has too often proved a one-way trip.

Meanwhile the upper class representatives, arriving at their holiday villa, an Egyptian art deco style pile called the Typhonium, to spend the summer, are equally grotesque in the opposite direction, loud, physically excessive, exuding false charm. First to arrive is André (Fabrice Lucchini) flapping along grimacing on twisty legs with knees that seem permanently locked together, and his wife Isabelle (Valeria Bruno Tedeschi). She might seem somewhat over the top, but pales into insignificance at the arrival of Audrey, André’s sister, Juliet Binoche enjoying herself tremendously, splendidly operatic in her expansive enthusiasms and hysteria.

It’s a very odd family indeed, laced with casual incest. It turns out the most sensible and normal, oddly, is Audrey’s mysterious child Billie (Raph), enigmatic and of fluid gender, appearing randomly as a beautiful boy in the Tadzio mould or handsome girl, a fact that seems to go unnoticed by the family. Meanwhile there’s a watchful, disdainful maid at their not-at- all-homely holiday home, and and a pair of Laurel and Hardy detectives, Machin and Malfoy, the fat one of whom swells with each unsolved case, to the point where he defies gravity, while the dapper ‘Laurel’ maintains an uncannily unflappable sangfroid throughout.

Romance soon blossoms between Billie and Ma Loute, a core of something beautiful in the midst of so much craziness, providing the sole intense moment, a straight echo from P’tit Quinquin, where Ma Loute and Billie declare their love for each other in a moment of rare stillness where time seems to stand still. This is ‘slack’ bay, though, and nothing still or intense stays that way.

P’tit Quinquin posed questions, bothered your civilised little mind, engraved its images into your heart. In the end Slack Bay is mostly a ball, there’s nothing gnawing at you, nothing to feel guilty about, and though it has its longueurs, it’s hugely entertaining.

Seen June 2017

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Churchill

Jonathan Teplitsky

One very good reason for going to this film is to see how the magnificent Brian Cox tackles playing Churchill. To be honest, there aren’t many other reasons for going. He’s certainly got the chops for the part, in every way, and does a powerful job against the odds with rather dull and ponderous material that never really progresses or elaborates on its basic situation.

Covering a brief period just before and after D-Day, it concerns itself with the great man’s doubts about letting the invasion go ahead, as he agonises about it becoming a repeat of the disaster of Gallipoli 30 years earlier, for which he, as a young minister, was to a great extent responsible. (In fact that engagement was studied as a model of what not to do in a seaborn land assault, so it did play its part.) ‘A bloodbath’ is what he continually calls the Normandy plans, and we see him first on a beach, stomping along in Churchillian profile, jutting jaw and paunch, having a fit of the horrors as the waves seem to bring a tide of blood up over the sands.

After his over-ruling by a determined trio of military experts – General Eisenhower supported by Field Marshalls Montgomery and Brooke – the invasion goes ahead, ignoring his vague mutterings about opening up a second front instead, and all he can do is lie impotently on his bed, or stomp around getting scant sympathy from Clementine. Blame it on the script, but has Miranda Richardson ever been so dull onscreen? Apart from one Blackadder moment of an ironic twist to her lips, she’s the glum dutiful wartime wife, exasperated with but supportive of her big baby of a husband. It’s certainly a great performance by Cox, his craggy face at first as fascinatingly watchable as a dramatic weathered landscape, its clints and grykes frozen with apprehension or looking about to crack along its fissures with agony. But sadly the lines he has to deliver and the repetition of the same round of fears, flash backs and agonising settles into a rut.

By settling in on Churchill as a character, there’s an opportunity lost to muse on how this was a pivot on which the balance of military power between the UK and US tottered and came down on the other side of the Atlantic. We were no longer to be in charge of our own military decisions. Sadly this idea isn’t taken very far at all, it’s all personalised into Churchill’s own agonised sensibilities. There’s a rather tame little side-plot involving a goggle-eyed secretary and her fiancé who’s a midshipman in the invasion force, which attempts to link with the reality of the invasion and cast a good light on the bloodbath aspect, but it’s lukewarm and soapy. Fiancé is OK, the invasion is a done deal, and all the film seems interested in is Churchill’s personal relief. Even though all the time you scarcely forget it’s not him you’re drawn in by but Brian Cox’s epic portrayal.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, June 2017