By Brent Morrow
French master Claire Denis’ latest launches into being a frame-spanning gush of water, with odd drops catching light as if specks and scratches on a particularly worn film print. Denis and regular DP Agnès Godard’s approach is as filmic as ever, despite having shot Bastards on the digital Red Epic, allowing for a murkier palette of grey-browns and as low lighting as possible to flatter the seediness of its world. The nocturnal deluge continues, reflected on the walls aside a pacing man and an unmarked envelope, then drowning a crime scene we learn is his suicide. A young woman wearing only heels wanders stupefied down a cobbled street. Denis elliptically feels her way into the mood, the narrative, seducing an active and attentive viewer, and probably baffling or boring a lazy one. Neither viewer will have to work as hard as for the overwhelming L’intrus, as Bastards sits closer to White Material and Trouble Every Day on the temporal/metaphorical ambiguity level. With this film it’s essential to ponder on how the quasi-detective fiction, puzzle-like manner plays on one’s associative reading of the narrative.
We wonder if the man killed himself unable to bear with some harm done to the girl (Lola Créton), or conversely if her incident somehow resulted from his death in nihilistic grief. The “answer” such as it is will for some time obscure that connection before becoming a good deal more complicated and disturbing than your mind could have inferred. This opening is not so removed from the subjectivity of Beau Travail and White Material in which the main characters seem to reflect upon their transformative experiences while riding public transport, informing the diegesis. That is, we could be privvy to the images conjured by Vincent Lindon’s navy merchant as he attempts to make sense of the shocking but vague details giving to him by his sister about her family’s recent traumas.
From here we assume Lindon seeks revenge on the wealthy tycoon (a Mabuse-like Michel Subor) whose money-lending is to blame for the aforementioned suicide of Lindon’s brother-in-law. This “revenge”, while not revealed to be a false lead (he stays at the apartment next to Subor, after all, and is shown Googling articles about the man), is at least distracted by or refracted as an affair with Subor’s young wife (Chiara Mastroianni), and in classic noir fashion (think Chinatown), turns drastically hopeless. Here, too, a vision of Mastroianni and police coming across her son’s wrecked bike in the woods, wedged between shots of Lindon lying in bed. His imagination predicting the revenge? An actual flash-forward? The narrative only approaches this again when Subor returns home with the boy to retrieve the bike. Denis allows us to now suspect Subor, or else an accident. Misdirection, perhaps, but it’s in the sowing of those seeds of viewer mistrust that Denis’ ambiguity makes good on the noir premise, and the title.
If Denis’ films are about the push and pull of family, the bittersweet or traumatic transition between homes (Friday Night, quite literally), Bastards follows suit. Lindon, beckoned back, attempts to clean up the mess out of some obligation to his family—yet he had eloped to the seas years prior, escaping them. His actions throughout the film are thus rather aloof, in self-interest, and ultimately he finds himself at odds with everybody. Mastroianni is tempted away from her comfortable family life by the masculine but benevolent presence of the sailor—demonstrated in one vintage moment of Denis sensuality in which she (both shes) gazes at the contours of Lindon’s muscled back beneath his shirt—before resolutely affirming her position come the end. And Créton presumably rebels via dangerous sexuality, but perhaps she is in fact obedient, masochistically so—the rotten fruit of bourgeois depravity. Denis customarily works with close-ups (so often here profiles meeting the edge of the frame with an ear centrally composed), barely visible faces we must cling to for all the uncertainty. Yet Créton remains impenetrable to us; one earnest declaration of love aside, she is entranced by Dionysian youth. Tindersticks take a cue from her: their score is a hypnotic stir of pleasure, ruin, and menace, more than crucial in establishing the film’s mood.
Bastards could be taken to task for its ultimately lurid content, where contrastly the non-hyperbolic universality of 35 Rhums and the microcosmic reality to the violence of White Material rise above. A metaphorical reading, the central family as symbolic of the aforementioned “bourgeois depravity”, may be too vague. Nonetheless, one can not ignore the ebb and flow of perturbing, violent films with the lighter, more tender efforts that make up Denis’ oeuvre (it is more accurate to say each film contains a complex combination of those extremes). Bastards is likely the most accomplished of her darker films, if for no other reason than the now-expert fractured assemblage of beguiling images towards a disquieting atmosphere and final impression. This is exciting cinema.
Brent Morrow watches A LOT of films and writes about them at Technicolor Red (http://bmtr.wordpress.com/).