It takes all of two minutes for Bruno Dumont’s latest film, “Slack Bay,” to poke fun at his bourgeois protagonists. A car emerges and with it is a woman who stands up, excited. “Ooo! Mussel-gatherers, how picturesque!” She’s spotted several children, spoons in tow, unearthing mussels from the seaside.
The woman, Isabelle Van Peteghem (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, “Saint Laurent”), is unaware of the peculiarity in front of her: wealthy adults being served by impoverished preteens. Like much of Dumont’s latest commentary on class warfare, the sequence is at once uproarious and depressing.
Affluence has become routine for the Van Peteghem family, which is rounded out by Andre (Fabrice Luchini, “In the House”), Aude (Juliette Binoche), and Cristian (Jean-Luc Vincent, “Camille Claudel 1915”). Together, they’ve returned to their cliff-top villa for the summer. It overlooks the gorgeous Slack Bay, the sounds of the sea humming from afar. It’s a serene environment occupied by people who are anything but.
Dumont’s prelude to the madness is throughly pleasant. Each set piece — interiors of the villa, walks around the courtyard, a lavishing dining area — is resplendent. Even when the Peteghem family is nearly unbearable to be around, you at least bask in their surroundings.
Much of that credit goes to set decorators Riton Dupire-Clement and Martin Dupont-Domenjoud. But it’s also the sumptuous work of cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, who collaborated with Dumont on his last film, “Camille Claudel 1915”. Where that film was confined to the eponymous sculptor, reclusive and dejected in her studio, “Slack Bay” offers the skilled DP room to spread his wings, and he takes advantage throughout.
This is true even when Dumont throws a curveball in the mix. The Peteghems’ summer takes an unexpected turn upon the appearance of two detectives (played by Didier Després and Cyril Rigaux). They’re looking for a string of tourists who’ve suddenly gone missing. Their detective work has yet to yield any concrete leads, forcing them to turn to the deep-pocketed residents.
The Peteghems are taken aback, mortified to be even in close proximity to something so unseemly. To exacerbate matters, Dumont crafts the hawkshaws in the vein of silent film-era Keystone Kops, bumbling and tumbling, redefining ineptitude with each passing second. Després (“Li’l Quinquin”) in particular has a knack for mining gold in slapstick comedy. He collapses almost by default. People laugh in unison. They can’t help themselves. Didier, on his ass, is the butt of many jokes, and he revels in it.
In the press, Dumont has cited Peter Sellers, Laurel and Hardy, and Monty Python as instrumental figures in the making of “Slack Bay,” all masters of absurdity who always managed to be funny while pushing the envelope. His idols strived to go beyond the boundaries, to make audiences uncomfortable so long as it ended with humor. Dumont does the same here. He thrusts his characters, as they bask in the lunacy of privilege, into silly situations. A man idly reads in a suit, only to have his beach chair crumble. Later, that same man furiously cutts into a turgid turkey that refusing to tenderize, or to be sliced; the knife goes flying.
Without coming off as spiteful, each scene seems to be mocking its central characters for their lack of self-awareness. The cast, led by a characteristically dazzling Binoche, is clearly loving the subject material. How could they not? Unhinged and witty, “Slack Bay” is one of those rare movies that looks like it was fun to make, and is even more fun to watch.