Thursday, 16 March 2017

French Film Festival (3) - A guarded glance at Bruno Dumont's MA LOUTE/SLACK BAY

I think there is a pun involved in a film titled Ma Loute. But I’m the last person to go further than that in contemplating any tricks of French grammar by Bruno Dumont, a provocateur with an occasional very mean spirit.  

I can set the scene. The title comes up as Ma Loute/Slack Bay. The former is the name of one of the lead characters, the latter the English name for the place where the film is set in the Pas-de-Calais in Northern France in 1910. Watching this presentation by the annual French Film Festival were thirty or more punters who had mostly paid the expensive minimum of $15 to attend a weekday morning screening at the increasingly rundown Chauvel cinema. The average age of the punters was 70+ by my observation and 80% were female.

Before I got to the film I was warned first by Sydney’s supercinephile Barrie Pattison who noted in a a report published on this blog  “… a definite thumbs down for Bruno Dumont’s grotesque Ma loute/Slack Bay.” Then there was Peter Hourigan’s Facebook comment about this year’s French Film Festival “My one dud? The new Bruno Dumont - whose films until this one I have liked very much”. No enthusiasm thus far.

But the opportunity of seeing the latest film by Bruno Dumont seems to me one of the few justifications for an event which is otherwise not a million miles from David Hare’s (Facebook) opinion: “in the past I always avoided these Frogfests like a dose of the plague. If ever you wanted irrefutable evidence of the decline of French cinema into a middlebrow cesspit of crap pseudo genres, they were it to a tee.”  

Brandon Lavieville, Ma Loute
As far as I’m aware no film by Dumont has ever had any sort of commercial season here. He is a coterie taste even at home I suspect. But with the exception of his first film Life of Jesus (which included some seriously hard core sex scenes) they have all been screened by the major Festivals or more recently by the annual French Film Festival, a behemoth event showing forty or more films made in the previous year or two. (Some of those FFF films will go on to have a commercial release but most will be sent back to their country of origin accompanied by a screening fee to the sales agent, producer or distributor based on the number of bums on seats each film attracted in the screenings around Australia.)

Didier Despres as the fat policeman
But back to Dumont. Over 20 years he has made 7 features and a TV mini-series. His early films Life of Jesus (1997) and Humanite (1999) saw him positioned as a provocateur compiling a bleak but vivid and most eccentric chronicle of the life of France’s north. Death, including serial killing, featured very large. The later films have been somewhat more tempered and he has even gravitated towards using stars.

Ma Loute/Slack Bay was screened in Competition at Cannes last year. It is heavily scheduled throughout the program in Sydney and I assume elsewhere. Dumont is not however a name to conjure with in the same breath as the boulevard comics and sentimentalists who make up much of the FFF program. He has a certain primeval view of his characters and does not always choose handsome types as his leads. Ma Loute  is no exception. The title character’s huge ears and skinny shaven head are set off bug eyes. It's the perfect appearance for a member of a family of murderous thugs living a hand to mouth existence on the seashore and supplementing their agricultural income by murdering strangers and undertaking such tasks as physically carrying, in their arms, wealthy people wishing to cross a stretch of nearby water. 

Set off against this squalor are the antics of a rich family with a splendid modern house on the hill above Slack Bay. The adults in the family are near to half wits. There is a twist about just who the teenage children are. That the most beautiful ‘girl’ falls for Ma Loute is one of life’s mysteries.

The third party is a gigantically obese policeman, thrust into the action, with little explanation, to discover what’s happening with people disappearing from the neighbourhood. When he walks the soundtrack reverberates with a sort of squelching thud. In the end the policeman blows up and floats away after his tethering comes loose. Elsewhere there is a degree of violence and a few stomach churning images. Bruno Dumont makes a comedy and much of the FFF audience actually cackled away contentedly.

Long in the past, a mainstream Festival director might have agonized about giving one of fifty precious slots to a lesser work by a major film-maker. But now festivals ooze way beyond a single narrowly confined event. Instead they are burgeoning out of national pride, supported by massive cultural affairs budgets and operating on a business model that brings some solid returns to distributors or sales agents Selectors or curators hardly have dilemmas these days.  So, if you are going to select forty films or so from last year’s French production you can hardly overlook the work of one of the nation's more individual talents. Dumont is a provocative entertainer whose antecedents go all the way back to Alfred Jarry and the surrealists, passing Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel on the way. So again, of course you to have program a new Bruno Dumont film and hope that enthusiastic program notes will sell tickets. The strategy seemed to be working a treat and by the end of the month there may well be some thousands more who have kept up with the work of one from the pointy end of French cinema. 

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