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The Uncivil Servant: Eating the Dead, Remembering the Dead

Mitchell Abidor
April 21, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Over the course of his twenty-year filmmaking career, Bruno Dumont has never been shy of pushing the limits. His earliest films, like La Vie de Jésus and L’Humanité, were harsh, stark portraits of life in the north of France, with generous doses of sex and violence. In Twenty-Nine Palms, he took his art to California, and the result was even more violent and charged than his French works.

He continued along that trail, until in 2014 he made a miniseries for French TV, released as a lengthy feature-length film here, P’tit Quinquin, an utterly bizarre murder mystery also set in the French north, featuring precocious kids, incompetent cops, and dismembered bodies. It was a delight.

His latest film, Slack Bay, continues in that vein. Some time in the early 20th century, the police are investigating a series of disappearances on the Channel coast. There is no mystery for us, however: The local ferryman and his son are killing their passengers and, taking the dismemberment and violence of Dumont’s past films a step further, feeding the family on the cut-up bodies.

Everything in Slack Bay is pushed to the extreme. Every character has a bizarre tic. Inspector Machin is so fat that he rolls down slopes and throws himself on the floor whenever he needs to bend over -- which he is physically incapable of doing -- and swells up more when he is unable to solve a crime. André Van Peteghem, the pater familias of a bourgeois family that holidays in the region every year, is unable to make the least move without adding dozens of flourishes to it. The poor locals, played by non-professionals from the region, are brutal, stupid, and speak with incomprehensible accents; the police are buffoons.

Nothing in the film is presented normally: the bourgeois are bourgeois to the nth degree, sneering at their plebeian neighbors, addressing each other in the vous form and marrying relatives for commercial reasons: “It’s quite common in the great families of the north,” we are told.

The direction of the performances is positively perverse. Fabrice Lucchini, who plays André Van Peteghem, is a notoriously affected actor; Dumont pushes his affectations to the breaking point, and he is ridiculous every second he is on screen. Juliette Binoche, normally the most skilled and in control of actors, is made to act the preening idiot, insisting, among other things, that her beautiful daughter is her son.

Within the first five minutes, one sees that Slack Bay is a film that will be like few others. It is a mad film, a bold film, a delightful film. Even with the meal of human limbs.

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QUITE DIFFERENT is Vanessa Gould’s Obit. This lovely little film is a group portrait of the New York Times obituary writers and their support staff, and a more lighthearted film on such a seemingly dark subject is hard to imagine.

As we are told immediately, obituaries are not about death, they “have everything to do with life,” even though obituary writer Bruce Weber tells us that his first question upon arrival at the office in the morning is, “Who died?”

Though there is a formula to a Times obit -- the second paragraph contains the cause of death and the course of the confirmation of the death, names of grandchildren are omitted -- the writers make it clear that their concern is narrative: an obituary is not a resumé, and within the word limits (usually 800-900 words), the writers try to compress a life worth reading about by those outside the family.

Margalit Fox can even describe an obituary as “badass,” like her brilliant one for John Fairfax which began, “He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there. He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible.” She is particularly proud of her obituary for typewriter repairman Manson Whitlock, which began, “For eight decades Manson Whitlock kept the twentieth century’s ambient music going, the ffft of the roller, the ding of the bell, the decisive zhoopbang of the carriage return, the companionable clack of the keys.”

The filmmaker interviews the writers about their craft, and follows the construction of a day’s obits, the writers’ struggles to find the right tone, the right facts to focus on, the right evidence for the body of the piece, some of it found in their massive morgue, including 1,700 advance obits, the oldest of which was used eighty years after it was written, about a teenage female stunt pilot of the 1920s.

The only thing these writers have of the hard-bitten image of the journalist is the refusal of euphemism: no one “passes away,” everyone “dies.” As one of them reminds us, “There’s nothing you can do about dying. I thought I might point that out.” The self-mocking tone of that statement sums up this wonderful film.


Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.