Like an episode of “Sesame Street” scripted by Luis Bunuel and helmed by Jacques Tati, “Rumba” turns dark tragedy into deadpan comedy through a series of surreal G-rated gags. An impressive do-it-yourself feature about a couple fun-loving dance freaks whose careers are cut short by a nasty car accident, this clever, near-silent comedy should bop around plenty of fests after preeming in Cannes’ Critics’ Week. Set for fall release in France, pic could find an adequate place offshore in the arthouse conga line with creative marketing.
It takes a certain amount of skill, not to mention hubris, to milk laughs out of attempted suicide, severe memory loss, amputated legs and burning homes. But writers-helmers-stars Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy — in their second feature collaboration after 2005 fest hit “Iceberg” — use smart staging and visually inventive direction to find the lighter side of their disturbing storyline.
All seems well at first for couple Dom (Abel) and Fiona (Gordon), who teach in a provincial primary school by day and compete in local rumba contests by night. Driving back from another prize-winning dance-a-thon, they avoid hitting hopelessly incompetent wannabe suicide Gerard (Philippe Martz) but get into a near-fatal bender that throws their merry lives into disarray.
Out of hospital, Dom and Fiona must deal with their newfound handicaps, and the filmmakers have a royal time exploiting every angle of their human tragedy for as many laughs as possible.
Dom’s amnesia is the source of one delightful gag after another, including a botched recipe where he keeps adding eggs and then forgets about them, cooking up an army-sized omelet for two. Meanwhile, Fiona, who’s now minus one leg, does classic slapstick as she tries to teach English to a group of 10-year-olds but can’t manage to get a hang of her crutches.
Third section has Dom on the loose, after Fiona — in a scene of pure pyrotechnical joy — accidentally burns down their house when her wooden leg catches fire.
Using virtually no music or dialogue, the filmmakers compose their gags out of strictly visual material, with clever burlesque stunts reminiscent of a Mack Sennett one-reeler. At the same time, their precise pop-art compositions, somewhere between the minimalism of Takeshi Kitano and the colorful designs of Wes Anderson, reflect a modernist comic sensibility where the laughs are more thoughtful than in-your-face.
Abel and Gordon, who both have backgrounds in dance and performance, pull off captivating circus-style perfs that reflect years of physical training. Top-notch tech contributions find low-budget solutions to the team’s higher comic ambitions.
Three enchanting dance sequences spaced throughout the narrative — the rumbas of the title — grow successively melancholic as it becomes clear that such dancing is more dream than reality.