What is happening to Bruno Dumont? The French helmer, primarily known for grim films full of death, rape and Christian allegories like Flanders or Hors Satan, already surprised Cannes two years ago with the comedic P’tit Quinquin (shown in the Quinzaine), and now he is back in the main competition this year with the full out farce Ma Loute. It’s an interesting change of events in the career of the 58-year-old director, and his latest outing shows he is just as apt in the comedic genre. Still, underneath all the absurd characters and to-the-rafters performances, Dumont manages to land not only somewhat easy, but nonetheless highly amusing and stinging jabs at the bourgeoisie, but also work more timely subjects like gender issues into his wild tale of disappearing bourgeois vacationers and cannibalistic fishermen on the Northern French Côte d’Opale, the same location as where Quinquin was set, and one Dumont has frequently used as his backdrop in the past. Maybe the fresh sea breeze is responsible for the remarkable lightness in his latest works, but in any case Ma Loute is a delightful light entry in this year’s competition. We just never expected it to be Dumont to provide the laughter on the Croissette.
Set in the early 20th century on the coastal strip near Calais, Ma Loute tells the story of two families: the Bruforts, fishermen and mussel gatherers, and the Van Peteghems, one of many bourgeois families visiting the coast for the summer. The Van Peteghems have a large, ugly concrete villa overlooking Slack Bay (the English title of the film, since Ma Loute seems to be untranslatable). The two adult Bruforts, the father (Thierry Lavieville) who is called The Eternal for his many rescue efforts out at sea, and the eldest son (Brandon Lavieville) whose name supplies the film with its French title, also run a service where they carry (literally) the rich ‘city folk’ across the shallow waters of the bay. It is on one of these carries that love starts to bloom between Ma Loute and Billie Van Peteghem (Raph), a boyish girl or a girlish boy, a mystery that is never quite resolved.
But love is just one of the things that is in the air in the summer of 1910. Cannibalism is another. Vacationers have gone missing at an alarming rate, and Inspector Machin (Didier Desprès) and his deputy Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), reminiscent of both the investigative duo of P’tit Quinquin and of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, are trying to quell the epidemic. Early on it is established that those who vanish fall victim to the Bruforts, who turn out to be a family of coastal cannibals. This casts a shadow over the budding Romeo and Juliet romance of Ma Loute and Billie Van Peteghem. In the meantime, the Van Peteghems fill their time with exaggerated amazement over the ‘charm’ of the ‘pittoresque’ seaside with its ‘enchanting’ flora and fauna and its ‘endearing’ local population. They are rich and bourgeois to their core, and portrayed with glee as a bunch of bumbling, snobby, stuck-up inbreds whose familial relations are never quite established: people are often spouses and in-laws at the same time.
Dumont makes a habit of casting amateur actors in his films, and it is no different here for the Bruforts, but for the larger-than-life Van Peteghems he needed people who could chew scenery like there was no tomorrow. And thus this family is portrayed by a quartet of well-known actors: Fabrice Luchini as André Van Peteghem, the patriarch of the family; Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as his wife Isabelle; Jean-Luc Vincent as his brother-in-law Christian, doubling as Isabelle’s brother; and last but not least Juliette Binoche as André’s over-the-top sister Aude.
It is a great joy to see these established performers dive into their absurdist material with great abandon, in particular Luchini and Binoche. The latter, who turned in one of her best dramatic performances in Dumont’s Camille Claudel just a few years ago, gives a completely unhinged performance as the egocentric drama queen Aude, in which she not only chews the scenery, but the whole French coast to boot. Put side by side, her roles in Camille Claudel and in Ma Loute show the incredible range of her talent, and it is fun to see her pull out all stops on something so utterly farcical. Luchini, in the meantime, boasts an impressive range of tics and silly walks in his portrayal of the supposedly world wise André. His disdain for the locals is more subtle, as he attempts to act above it all. Tedeschi gets the short end of the stick, as her Isabelle is more subdued, and continuously upstaged by her sister-in-law.
Ma Loute is a balls-to-the-walls comedy, but the unfettered piss-taking out of the bourgeoisie gives the film a not-so-subliminal take on social classes. Whether the Bruforts’ tendency for man-eating means anything in this matter is a different question. More subtle are its transgender themes. Billie is alternately referred to as ‘him’ and ‘her’, and though Ma Loute seems to establish the character as male late in the film, the role is almost undeniably played by a girl. Though a sliver of doubt remains, and the fact that the actress simply goes by the name of Raph does not help. So in the end, we are never quite sure of the gender of Billie, and nobody really seems to care either, which is excessively progressive for an early 20th century family perhaps (but everything in this film is excessive), yet also a progessive choice in filmmaking a century later.
The film takes a while to find its groove, and it is arguably the entrance of Juliette Binoche that kicks the film into a higher gear. From there on, the film veers clearly into camp territory, with absurdist overtones in the form of (unexplained) levitation. Not all jokes land, not on non-French speaking shores anyway, but the performances and the detailed art direction carry Ma Loute a long way. In many ways, it is a typical Bruno Dumont film, only with everything amped up to 11, and fans of his works will surely embrace his latest effort. His newfound levity might even gain him some new ones, although they will be in for a shock if they delve into his filmography. And to think he is making a musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc next. My goodness, where is this all leading?