The film-maker reveals how postcards inspired his new film Slack Bay.
As Bruno Dumont looked around for his next project a couple of years ago, he knew two things: it had to be a comedy, and it had to be set on the Côte d’opale in northern France, where the director lives. What he needed was an idea. It arrived in the shape of two postcards.
“I came across these old cards, in particular some showing the ‘ Passeurs de la Baie de la Slack’, the local folk who ferried middle-class people from one bank of the River Slack to the other at the start of the 20th century,” he recalls. “That triggered everything and acted as the starting point for my next film. When I started on the screenplay, I filled in the gaps between these postcards.”
When Dumont finished writing, he had created Slack Bay, a macabre comedy set in 1910 about the life of a madcap community who live on France’s northern coast. That includes local fishermen the Bruforts who, to make extra money, ferry rich holidaymakers across the river, and the eccentric Van Peteghem family, including Fabrice Luchini as patriarch André and Juliette Binoche as his unbalanced sister Aude, who spend their summers in a huge mansion on a hill.
“The start of the 20th century marks the emergence of the bourgeoisie, of industry, capitalism, and therefore class struggle,” says Dumont. “We are dealing with a founding narrative, a primitive film about our age. For the first time, I had to re-create a landscape that has disappeared. The postcards of Slack Bay from that time helped in this. They gave a documentary foundation to the fiction.”
When it came to finding the right home for the snooty Van Peteghems, Dumont set out to find a structure that was every bit as over the top as the family. Further up the coast in Wissant, the Typhonium, a house built in a neo-egyptian style at the end of the 19th century, fitted the bill perfectly. “Since the story quickly goes off the rails, I wanted a setting that embodies this folly,” Dumont says. “The owners were reticent about welcoming a film shoot. At first, they refused, but then agreed a year later. We filmed the exteriors at the Typhonium, and the interiors in another house that is just as whimsical, dreamt up by some English people in a Tudor style [Château d’hardelot near Condette].”
Making Slack Bay is the latest intriguing move for one of France’s most unpredictable and skilful directors. Born in Bailleul, north of Lille, Dumont studied and taught philosophy before turning to writing and directing films. Often working with non-professional actors and mostly filming in the Calais area, the director became known for his avant-garde, dark, realistic dramas. L’humanité (1999) and Flandres (2006) were both awarded the Grand Prix jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Hadewijch won the FIPRESCI (international film critics) prize in 2009.
After directing one of his most talked-about and critically acclaimed dramas, Camille Claudel 1915, in 2013, Dumont changed lanes dramatically with the comedy TV series P’tit Quinquin.
“I might have done a lot of dramas in the past, but I actually do like to laugh,” he says with a wry smile. “In the depths of drama lies comedy and with
Camille Claudel 1915, I had reached the bottom. Working on P’tit Quinquin, I realised that comedy can also be very profound and spiritual. Doing comedy is more difficult than drama, though. I find a comedian to be bit of a mystical figure. Comedy is less incantatory and is different to drama, and thus more difficult to create.”
Helping Dumont in his cinematic journey into the unknown while making Slack Bay was trusted collaborator Juliette Binoche, with whom the director worked on Camille Claudel 1915. Asked to put in a manic, unrestrained performance as Aude Van Peteghem, the actress obliged without thinking twice. “Juliette is a courageous actress,” says Dumont. “I knew she could do anything, so I naturally thought of her for the role of Aude. She’s always willing to go out of her comfort zone and take a risk.”
With Slack Bay winning over critics and audiences, Binoche and Dumont’s gamble has paid off, and the film has taken its place among the director’s stable of magnificent oddities. “As a film-maker, I push extremes to the limit,” he says. “The result might have been horrible, unbearable even, but instead it’s funny because the comedy is fed by the tragedy. I wanted to find laughs in serious situations, the shadowy zones that I have explored in the dramatic idiom in my previous films. I just had to find the right distance to do it. Jubilation is cleansing.” See Pierre’s review of Slack Bay on page 92.
ABOVE: A scene from Slack Bay, filmed on the Côte d’opale between Calais and Boulogne-sur-mer
LEFT: Bruno Dumont at the Cannes Film Festival; ABOVE: The director’s regular collaborator, Juliette Binoche, in a scene from Slack Bay