‘Dinner’s ready!’: Consumer society or Consumption of ‘High’ Society in Bruno Dumont’s Ma Loute

Marianne Golding, Southern Oregon University

Ma Loute (2016) is Bruno Dumont’s tantalizing film, shot in his native Pas-de-Calais. Nominated for nine Césars, the film paints an acerbic portrait of two Belle Époque families opposed in every respect. Dumont contends that his films are simply about human nature and “anything but social.”  But Ma Loute is both a human and a social satire that stages “the tensions between Europe’s rich and poor” by attacking the rich as idle and silly while pointing out the crude (but honest) behavior of the poor. [1]

Bruno Dumont studied philosophy—which he also taught—and cinema, before going on to produce a series of realistic, provocative, and at times disturbing films influenced by his studies. [2] Then, without abandoning philosophy, he embarked on comedy, or tragicomedy, as he defines his latest productions. [3] Two of his latest movies, Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017) and Joan of Arc (2019) are rock musicals.

So how to situate Ma Loute in this amalgam of themes, styles and genres? As far as Dumont is concerned, all of his movies “are the same, the philosophy is the same, the stakes are the same, and sometimes even the landscapes or the characters are the same but the mode of expression has changed. It’s [the comic] just a different way of approaching the same material, the material being human nature.” [4] 

It is indeed in a comedic way that social inequalities and characteristics are expressed, mainly through offenses committed by two families — one poor, one rich — which include transgressions, lies, and nonsense touching on human relations, sexuality, and language. All of this exposes a distorted, parodic vision of the families. While some of the infractions reveal particular features of human nature as Dumont intended, others become social satire by attacking behaviors emblematic of socio-economic class.

The characters in Slack Bay (the film’s English title) are, on one side, “poor proletarians with rotten teeth” always ready to get their hands dirty, and on the other, Labiche-style bourgeois, “industrial fat, incestuous and inbred,” who, unable to use their own hands, spend their time dispensing dubious orders to their servant. [5] Action versus inaction is what differentiates the two social classes the most.

The plot, assuming there is one, roughly follows these lines: the bourgeois André and Isabelle Van Peteghem and their two daughters make their annual visit to their second home on the Opal Coast in the Pas-de-Calais, Chti country where “quoi”, “vendiou” and other idiomatic tics lend linguistic comic effect. They are joined by Billie, André’s androgynous nephew who usually identifies as a girl. Billie falls in love with Ma Loute, the acne-ridden son of a local fisherman who couldn’t be more ill-suited to that affectionate name and who is unaware of Billie’s birth gender, because the latter dresses and behaves as a girl in his presence. [6] Aude, Billie’s mother, eventually shows up, as does Isabelle’s brother Christian, both of them hilarious inbred characters as, to some extent, are the rest of the Van Peteghem adults. Two only somewhat efficient policemen, the heavily-built and incoherent Machin, whose body squeaks with each and every movement; and the frail, more reasonable Mafoy, to inform us of the regular, mysterious disappearances of bourgeois tourists around the Nord-Pas-de-Calais bay.

“Disappearances are often a mystery,” explains Mafoy to Machin in all seriousness, their physique evoking a French Laurel and Hardy. They are neither useless bourgeois nor productive members of the working-class but men whose status lies somewhere between, as emphasized by names that express the absence of identity (“Thing” and  “Well”). Their investigation repeatedly takes them to the Van Peteghems, where André’s awkward and ineffective verbal communication does little more than hinder the inquiry. In spite of their failure to solve the mystery of the disappearances, these Chti Laurel and Hardy rightly suspect the mussel gatherers to be involved.

From the very first scene, the opposition between wealthy vacationers and poor laborers is highlighted by the Van Peteghems’ reaction to the spectacle of the mussel gatherers near their holiday home. The bourgeois, who have come to distract themselves in their Slack Bay water-front villa, rave at the exoticism they see in Ma Loute’s family, the Bruforts, just as, a little later, André cannot help but marvel at the sight of a perplexed oysterman: “Look, this is sensational and admirable! Look at this seaman, what simplicity, like a drawing.” (0:25:31) The gap between the laborers’ hard work and the bourgeois’ inappropriate comments doesn’t go unnoticed by Ma Loute, who spits on the Van Peteghem car (“Boy does that car stink!”) as it passes. The portrayal of the Van Peteghems, with sprinkled insults from Ma Loute, suggests from the very start that the bourgeois will be the ones most often targeted and ridiculed by Dumont: their eccentric behavior, froufrou clothing amidst mud and fish, exaggerated empty movements and the sounds that accompany them, as well as their linguistic and facial expressions reveal their faults and defects more or less explicitly throughout the movie. All of these traits render them as fake and useless. Some faults are hidden behind neat, delicate exteriors — like the Van Peteghem residence, the “Typhonium,” which is not an Egyptian-style home, as André would have it, but a fake, as Inspector Machin correctly notices on his very first visit to the Van Peteghems: “It’s cement, right?” (0:34:00) Other faults are shown in an openly grotesque way, like André’s facial mimicry or the characters’ numerous accidental falls, as when André’s and Christian’s chaise lounges collapse beneath them or André crashes his wind cart into a huge rock on the beach, to fly through the air and disappear behind a shipwreck, as his wife, children and sister scream in panic. All of these accidents demonstrate powerlessness.

The mussel gatherers, while less accident-prone than the bourgeois, do not escape Dumont’s caricatural paint stroke, with their incomprehensible grunts, dark inhospitable abodes, repulsive hygiene and less-than-exquisite cannibalistic eating habits. For we soon learn that the Bruforts are the ones who capture tourists, and do so for their own consumption. In exchange for a few centimes to supplement their gains from selling mussels, Ma Loute and his father “help” these tourists cross the bay. [7] But the crossing all-too-often ends in death by well-delivered oar blow. Cut in pieces, the tourists are fed raw and without ceremony to the Brufort children as they sit around a metal basin. “Who wants another foot?” the mother asks. The children, quite full, turn down seconds, suggesting that famine is not the reason for the family’s choice of foods. “How about a piece of brain?” offers the mother, intimating that not all pieces are equally tasty. For if only bourgeois flesh will do, its quality depends on the body part or victim’s age. “It’s gonna be good tonight, if they’re young ones!” rejoices connoisseur Madame Brufort when she discovers the two unconscious tourists her husband has delivered to their courtyard after a particularly productive crossing. (0:36.40) That the poor only feed on the rich is no accident: “Anthropophagy is a way to show that one doesn’t like the bourgeois,” as Michael Melinard pointed out in his review of the film, and perhaps also a way to find a productive use for these useless people [9]. Or perhaps it is a way to counter how the bourgeois make use of servants and mussel-gatherers by figuratively “sucking their blood.” [8]

How the Van Peteghems eat distinguishes them from the Bruforts in many ways: the decor in which they take their meals, the opulence of their place settings, and the dishes served them (usually after being cooked!), but also and most notably the rules and regulations prescribed by their social status. When Nadège, the housemaid, serves on the wrong side of guests, Isabelle chastises her. Because Nadège is closer in background, both socially and geographically, to the mussel gatherers than to the Van Peteghems, she ignores the kinds of rules that she most likely realizes would be of no use to her outside the Typhonium anyway. Indeed, Nadège appears the wiser of the household for ignoring these rules because, when seen through her eyes, they only highlight the Van Peteghems’ stupidity and ineptitude.

What better example of bourgeois ineffectiveness than André Van Peteghem’s unsuccessful effort to cut the Sunday roast? Like a surgeon, he raises both forearms to receive the knife that Nadège places in one hand before putting the serving fork in the other, seemingly following a well-orchestrated ritual. But when André tries to slice the meat, despite all his pains, little cries of effort, and expressions of frustration, he cannot get the job done, which infuriates his sister to no end. In a high-pitched, venomous tone, she asks him, “Hey, André, have you lost it? You’re not going to send this creature into the ground before we have even tasted it, are you!?!?” (0:46:50)

The roast is finally sent back to the kitchen where Isabelle cuts it herself with the maid’s help, but not without having first grabbed the knife from the resigned-but-so-very-sorry André, in a symbolically castrating gesture if ever there was one! Aude’s excessive reaction to her brother’s roast failure reveals the disdain she feels for this man who is metaphorically impotent and essentially inefficient, and seems to refer not only to this last failure but to others that might have peppered their life as siblings. Most notably, we find out during the next scene that André and his father both raped Aude on a drunken, incestuous night, leading to Billie’s conception. Which of the men is actually Billie’s father cannot be known. On this particular Sunday, however, it is indeed the roast Aude refers to in the scene where Nadège and Isabelle set off for the kitchen to repair the damages perpetrated by the patriarch. “My poor André, my poor André…. You’re so clumsy with your hands. Why humiliate yourself ?” (0:47:35) This comment is followed by a long stare filled with infinite sadness between brother and sister. Isabelle and Nadège return from the kitchen, the roast finally sliced. But when served, the adults are unable to eat the animal. Aude chews the same tiny piece of roast for what seems minutes, in a close and unflattering shot. Isabelle and André don’t even bother to taste it, refusing, with a disgusted look, to put any on their plates. Here is another example of the bourgeois’ failure to act, which suggests a disgust for meat that may clash with their superficial attraction to beautiful things (“Oh, a bird!”) while reminding them of André’s failure to provide for his family. Their inability to eat is also contrasted with the Brufort children’s action of eating à pleines dents (to the fullest, with gusto). The bourgeois remain empty while the poor feel full and content.

An inability to carve or eat are not the only traits that characterize this bourgeois family. It is quite clear from the rules imposed by the Van Peteghems that inaction and failure systematically supersede concrete action. Throughout the movie, they languish in idleness and passivity, remaining in that state even when members of their own family are in danger. When, for example, André expresses concern for the children running in the Bay, he calls to them from afar without actually attempting to fetch them. “It’s dangerous there, it’s marshy in the bay, it’s marshy in the bay.” (0:34) Needless to say, the children pay no attention. A more dangerous episode leaves the Van Peteghems just as passive. When love-birds Ma Loute and Billie disappear in the ocean during a storm, the Peteghems can do no more than cry, complain, and, in Aude’s case, pass out, seemingly incapable of actually looking for them. In the end, it is Monsieur Brufort, also known as L’Éternel for his many rescues at sea, who saves the teenagers. If the religious connotation linked to Monsieur Brufort’s nickname is lost on Aude and her family, it is not lost on the audience. [9]

Aude does, however, opt for her own sort of religious explanation for the adolescents’ rescue. Despite the irrefutable fact that Monsieur Brufort saved the children, nothing can shake her conviction that their rescue is a miracle that can only be attributed to the Virgin Mary. In other words, Aude denies any role that Ma Loute’s father might have played. Nadège proposes a much more realistic version of the events during the Van Peteghems’ apéritif (“the drop of “wissiki”): when Aude asks, “Who returned my Billie from the nastiness of the sea?” Nadège responds, “The Eternal, ma’am…” Christian retorts, “[…] “Wasn’t it Mr. Brufort who saved Billie?” Oblivious, Aude coos, “It’s… It’s… It’s the Virgin Mary who watched over Billie. Our Lady of the Sea.” (1:04:50)

The unverifiable miracle is therefore privileged over Monsieur Brufort’s manifest action. Yet in this scene and everywhere else in the movie, whatever the Bruforts take on, they bring to fruition — whether transporting and killing their customers, cutting them up and consuming them, or in this instance, saving Ma Loute and Billie.

When Isabelle claims that “these people,” the fishermen, are “not like us,” one can’t help but ascribe to the sentiment. As Christian says throughout the movie, “We know what to do but we do not do!” Indeed, only the practical Bruforts “do,” while the Van Peteghems consanguineous, industrial, order-giving bosses “do not do”!

The differences between the characters and the social classes they embody are further highlighted when some of them try crossing the border between antinomic worlds. “Each time one of the characters from these entities ventures onto the other’s territory, it is perceived as a transgression,” notes Arnaud Hée. [10] Of particular interest are the transgressions perpetrated by Billie and Ma Loute, the only two characters who venture to break down social barriers.

Right after the cannibalistic meal described above, Billie pays Ma Loute a visit. This crossing, or even trespassing, constitutes a radical transgression. Unaware of the Bruforts’ sordid habits, Billie, a product of her class, admiringly contemplates the scenery around them, which clashes with Ma Loute’s lifestyle and which the young man, untrained in finer things, finds himself unable to appreciate:

            “What you lookin’at?”

            “I’m looking at where you live. It’s beautiful.”

            “It’s jus’ normal.” (1:21:40)

This unilaterally sentimental scene is interrupted by a growl that emanates from Ma Loute, scaring the poor Billie who knows nothing of her beloved’s dietary peculiarities, or the world he inhabits.

The most eloquent social transgression without a doubt takes place when Ma Loute accepts an invitation to share the Van Peteghems’ Sunday meal. This ensuing scene illustrates the gap between the animal-like Bruforts and elegant Van Peteghem family, while simultaneously betraying the darkness of the latter’s character and feeling of superiority as Ma Loute’s unsophisticated appearance, unsuitable accent, and chti words and expressions excite Aude’s disdain. André, who says he owes “une fière chandelle” (“a lot”) to Monsieur Brufort for saving Billie, is thanked by Ma Loute with a “Merchi, m’chieu!” (“Shanks, shir”). (1:06:28) Aude begins to mock Ma Loute by repeating his words while laughing. It isn’t, however, until Aude asks Ma Loute the origin of his name and that he answers “chais pas, m’dame, ch’est comme cha qu’ch’m’appelle” (“Dunno, ma’am. It’s jus’my name”) — which Aude repeats in an exaggerated manner — that the whole family starts to laugh hysterically, to Ma Loute’s great embarrassment.

The treatment Ma Loute receives from the Van Peteghems does not diminish his feelings for Billie, whose ‘monstrous’ gender fluidity is attributed by her mother to her incestuous conception. [12] Billie hides the truth about her identity when Ma Loute questions her indirectly about her gender: “Dressed as a boy?” he says with surprise on their second encounter. “Of course,” answers Billie without the slightest clarification. (0:27:27) On another occasion, Ma Loute continues to inquire more insistently:

“Why are you dressed as a boy if you’re a girl? You’re not a boy, right?”

“Course not, I’m a girl, Ma Loute; I like to dress up, that’s all.” (0:44:00)

The lingering ambiguity about Billie’s gender is lifted when the masculine pronoun is used by members of the Van Peteghem family as they talk about Billie. Her mother considers Billie’s female identification to be a perverse game. “Billie, what’s going on now? Can’t you give it a rest?” she laments out loud when she spots Billie wearing a dress again. (0:57:30)

While the spectator soon realizes Billie’s biological identity, it takes one last crossing of Slack Bay for Ma Loute to find out. It is indeed as he is carrying Billie in his arms again, that he feels the shape of Billie’s testicles. He reacts by violently throwing Billie in the water, shouting, “You’ve got balls?! You’re a lad? You conned me!” (1:38:30) Outraged at the gender transgression that was kept from him, he beats Billie until the poor victim lays motionless in the Slack Bay’s shallow water. While Ma Loute’s reaction is more violent than Aude’s, they (and those they represent) share a common inability to accept what is out of the norm for their own social group and society as a whole. That might be the one transgression that unifies the separate worlds, the incompatibility between a working-class boy and a trans girl mirroring the incompatibly between social classes then and now.

The revelation of Billie’s biological sex puts an end to all of the teenagers’ transgressions so that an acceptable social balance can be restored. An apparent return to norms at the end of the movie lets us assume that the characters are back in their accepted social space and finally doing what they are supposed to be doing, which suggests that the possibility of the merging of classes through Billie and Ma Loute had been from the start nothing but an illusion.

Both classes are undeniably mocked in Dumont’s movie, but the caste of bourgeois industrialists, to whom the stigmas of incest, lies, and helplessness are attached, emerges as the most ridiculed. That is not surprising as Dumont has often expressed his aversion for capitalism, and hence for the bourgeoisie.

This lampoon pokes fun at human nature through slapstick to suggest that, for Dumont at least, human satire and social satire may be inseparable. By attributing particular behaviors to opposed groups rather than to individuals, regardless of class, he highlights the gulf between those groups and suggests that reconciliation between them, in the past or present, is as unlikely as romance finally proves between Billie and Ma Loute.

Bruno Dumont, Ma Loute, 2016.

Notes:

1. Guanjavie, Amir. “The New Extremism in the Street of Comedy : An Interview with Bruno Dumont.” Senses of cinema, issue 82, March 2017. sensesofcinema.com/2017/movements-filmmaker-interviews/bruno-dumont-interview/.

2. Dumont’s Master’s thesis was entitled, Philosophie et esthétique du cinéma souterrain (Philosophy and esthetics of Underground Cinema).

3. Dumont’s other films include: La Vie de Jésus (1997), L’Humanité (1999), Twentynine Palms (2003) film d’une rare violence, Flandres (2006), Hadewijch (2009), Hors Satan (2011), Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), Ma Loute (2016), Jeannette, l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc (2017), Jeanne (2019).

4. See Guanjavie, Amir.

5. Raymond, Vincent. “‘Ma Loute’: À manger et à boire”. Petit bulletin, 17 mai 2016. petit-bulletin.fr/saint-etienne/cinema-article-54534-“Ma+Loute”+++A+manger+et+a+boire….html.

6. “[A] term of endearment, though a northern dictionary also makes reference to sexual innuendo,” but also, according to Andréa Picard, the name that was found on one of the postcards depicting the crossers that inspired Dumont’s movie (cinema-scope.com) – (see note 4).

7. These bay crossings are based on real fact as seen on local postcards from the era.

8. Melinard, Michaël. “Bruno Dumont:  ‘Ici, on n’aime pas le bourgeois, donc on le bouffe,’” L’Humanité, 13 mai 2016, humanite.fr/bruno-dumont-ici-naime-pas-le-bourgeois-donc-le-bouffe-607074.

9. The ideas of making use of the useless bourgeois and that of blood-sucking were suggested by Dr. Laura Mason.

10. Religion is a recuring topic in Dumont’s work.

11. Hée, Arnaud. “Ma Loute de Bruno Dumont.” https://www.revue-etudes.com/article/ma-loute-de-bruno-dumont-17624

12. Indeed, Aude cries out, “What monster have we, through our blood, given life to…?” (1:33:40)