A French farce that is hard to parse

 

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES — The first French farce was performed in the 13th century.  British farce began a century later.  They are both still going strong, but often in very different directions.

British farce usually tends to be a frenetic comedy of people chasing each other up and down stairs, banging doors, and misunderstanding everything that’s going on.

French farce, at least as represented by a new film, Slack Bay” which opens Friday, April 28th at Laemmle’s Monica and Playhouse 7, has fantasy, mystery, a strange love story, cannibalism, and a rich dollop of Laurel and Hardy.

Set in northern France in 1910, in a coastal region so remote that it seems like the last place on earth, the area is inhabited by a bizarre family who work gathering mussels and ferrying occasional sightseers across a portion of the bay.  Sometimes in a rowboat and sometimes carrying their “passengers” in their arms.  They are the Brufort family, living in squalor in the midst of extraordinary beauty, lavish greenery, and the flashing waters of the bay.  But they are consistently well-fed, dining on the bodies of the people who drown along the bay’s sludgy edges.

The father and son of the Brufort family are a real-life father and son, an appropriately strange-looking pair.  The son is called Ma Loute, and he is the focal point of the film.

Very soon this family is joined by the wealthy Van Peteghem family, a conglomeration of assorted, and excessively intimate, brothers and sisters who have come to spend the summer in their vast mansion on the mountaintop above the Bruforts.

They all dress elegantly, as befits the high society of the early 20th century, and are apparently wealthy enough to get away with being completely eccentric.

Among them is a melodramatic Juliette Brinoche, beautiful as ever, and a niece named Billie who becomes a girl when she wears girl-clothes and a long dark wig, and a boy when she dons boy-clothes and removes the wig.

In her girl persona she falls instantly in love with Ma Loute, and he, bemused, returns her love.

Suddenly the plot thickens as a police inspector and his assistant arrive to investigate the mysterious disappearance of several tourists.  They themselves are doppelgangers of Laurel and Hardy and behave accordingly.  They are dressed in black clothes and derby hats and the inspector, who looks like he weighs 600 pounds, keeps falling down in a helpless heap.  And missing every potential clue that turns up.

This whimsical comedy (not a laugh-out-loud comedy) was written and directed by Bruno Dumont, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.  The film was also nominated for nine Cesar Awards, including three for Dumont: Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Film.

Slack Bay will open at the Monica Film Center,1332 2nd Street in Santa Monica and Playhouse 7, 673 East Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena on April 28th.  It is scheduled to open at other venues shortly.

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Citron is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts. She may be contacted via [email protected]

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