Bruno Dumont’s Ma Loute, in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is an irritating mix of slap-stick comedy, outrageous overacting and surreal imagery underpinned with a dash of social realism. Described as one of France’s most important contemporary film makers, Dumont’s art-house, radical style is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Ma Loute bombards the audience with gothic horror storylines including incest and adolescent love adding in cannibalism and transgenderism along the way. This leaves behind a frustrating tangled web of half-glimpsed truths and confusing plot twists. As with previous films, Dumont’s cast of A-list professional thesps – Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the aristocratic Van Peteghems – play opposite locally hired non-professional actors representing the lower classes. The Van Peteghem’s come with a full complement of physical tics and weird eccentricities, but the hardworking Bruforts fare no better making it difficult to see where the directors’ sympathies lie. It’s a drawn-out, sadly underwhelming experience.
It’s the summer of 1910 and Slack Bay in northern France is plagued by a series of mysterious disappearances of tourists to the area. Inspector Machin (Didier Despres) and his side-kick Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux) are called-in to investigate and find themselves at the heart of a strange love affair between a local boy, Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), and the androgenous Billie Van Peteghem (Raph) daughter of Aude Van Peteghem (Juliette Binoche).
Dumont covered similar ground in the 2014 murder-mystery miniseries Li’l Quinquin and it’s difficult to see what else he’s hoping to add here. The humour is refreshingly off beat and genuinely very funny in several scenes mostly at the expense of the two local detectives who bear more than a passing resemblance to Laurel and Hardy. The corpulent Inspector Machin has the unfortunate habit of falling over and lying helplessly on the ground until helped to his feet by Malfoy. But it’s a running gag that quickly loses its appeal. Luchini brings his usual magic to the role of André Van Peteghem and appears to be enjoying himself enormously as the hunchback, eccentric paterfamilias who is totally disconnected from the real world. Binoche hams it up as his manic sister while Bruno Tedeschi’s low-key performance as André’s wife Isabelle, is a welcome counterpoint to all the on-screen insanity. Beautifully filmed by Guillaume Deffontaines, many of the film’s most arresting images of the rough coast and its inhabitants will remain in the mind long after the muddled story has been forgotten.