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Cannes festival goes over the top with degenerate, cannibalistic social farce

© Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-05-13

French provocateur Bruno Dumont has children feeding on human limbs in “Slack Bay”, his latest, extravagant foray into black comedy, while Egypt’s “Mohamed Diab” dissects a revolution gone astray at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I came as a king and left as a legend.” It sounds like the stuff of film divas, the kind of proclamation one might expect from Cannes. Except it’s a little too pompous and unwitty, the unabashed boast of a different breed of diva: self-declared football demigod Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose typically flamboyant announcement that he was quitting his club, Paris Saint-Germain, caused a bit of a stir this morning as critics filed out of the press screening of Bruno Dumont’s “Slack Bay” (“Ma Loute”), the second French entry in this year’s competition.

The host country is under pressure to perform this year after a poor showing at the 2015 festival. With the honourable exception of Stéphane Brizé’s “The Measure of a Man”, French movies were undeniably the weakest link in last year’s selection – though they did provoke a memorable instance of Italian exuberance when, referring to allegations of favouritism at Cannes, a distraught critic jumped up at the end of one forgettable French film shouting “Nepotismo!”

Festival director Thierry Frémaux has been criticized in recent years for ignoring hugely successful works by Dumont and fellow veteran Arnaud Desplechin (the Cannes rumour mill suggested Dumont was being punished for a heated row in which he and Frémaux almost came to blows). This year the festival has made amends by giving Desplechin a seat on the jury and Dumont a competition slot. But after watching the latter’s bizarre entry, I was wondering whether his selection might have been a trap.

“Slack Bay” is a bizarre, over-the-top pastiche of multiple genres and themes featuring social farce, melodrama, a mock thriller, androgyny, inbreeding and cannibalism. It is set in the early 20th century in Dumont’s native northern France, where a seaside community of rustic fishermen is invaded by outrageous snobs holidaying in their faux-Egyptian villa, while a pair of buffoonish cops investigate the (not so mysterious) disappearance of several tourists.

The film mixes Dumont’s customary unknowns with some of the biggest names in French cinema, including Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche. The effect is to exacerbate the social divide, with professional actors delving into a hyper-theatrical repertoire and amateurs exaggerating their incarnation of archaic savages. Naturally, only a love story can bridge the chasm between the two classes, though in classic Dumont fashion the romance is necessarily transgressive and violent.

French cinema's bourgeoisie

The French director has in the past spoken of his “political duty” to reach out to the general public by casting famous actors. “If the people want to see Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise, then it is really my job to incorporate them into my films,” he said back in 2007. But Dumont has no interest in merely showcasing celebrities. “Slack Bay” feels like an attempt to shatter the public image of famous actors, extending the critique of bourgeois society to include a subversion of the bourgeoisie of French cinema.

Ahead of the screening, I was keen to find out just how far into comedy Dumont could push Binoche, and how his instinct to do less could be reconciled with Luchini's instinct to do more. In the end, I was surprised to find Luchini pushed so far into hyperbole that it clearly made him uncomfortable.

French film stars Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche kiss at the Cannes photocall for Bruno Dumont's "Slack Bay" on May 15, 2016.

Dumont’s extravagant foray into comedy is the latest provocation by a director who has consistently shocked and disorientated viewers with his severe and ponderously paced portrayals of humanity’s savage side. The picture looks great and the classical music score by little-known Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu is a treat. But I was very rapidly turned off by the film's fastidious sound effects and latter-day Benny Hill humour that felt repetitive and distinctly unfunny.

From revolution to civil war

I had similar misgivings about the lack of subtle dialogue in Egyptian drama “Clash” ("Eshtebak"), an otherwise powerful allegory of all that has gone horribly wrong with the country’s 2011 revolution, which opened the Un Certain Regard sidebar on Thursday.

Mohamed Diab’s drama is set entirely inside a police van days after the military coup that ousted Egypt’s democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi. It has a brilliant pitch: members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood are locked up in the van with supporters of the military (their mortal foes) and forced to coexist as they look on helplessly at the civil war unfolding around them.

Creditably, the director adopts a strict neutrality as he exposes the prejudice and hatred that ripped apart Egyptian society and scuttled the country’s revolution. His film features fascinating opening and closing sequences but dips significantly in the middle, and I suspect viewers unaccustomed to local cinema will be put off by the constant shouting and overacting (I certainly was). Watching "Clash" meant skipping Ken Loach's latest competition entry, which was warmly endorsed by critics, fuelling early speculation of a second Palme d'Or for the veteran Briton. I look forward to catching up on that one later on in the festival.

Date created : 2016-05-13

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