The always-controversial director’s nihilistic neo-noir reassessed.
Claire Denis has never been one to shy away from controversy or confronting the audience, and her film Bastards certainly makes no concessions towards satisfying the viewer. On the one hand, this is admirable, allowing the story to develop in a more realistic than crowd-pleasing way; on the other, it rather ensures that this is a film that will struggle to engage. The word ‘divisive’ is the one that comes to mind immediately when looking back at this after viewing.
Told in a deliberately fractured way, Bastards is a tale of revenge and corruption, starring Vincent Lindon, as French an actor as you could hope to see, as Marco, a sea captain who returns to France following a family tragedy. His brother-in-law has committed suicide over debts owed to a shady businessman Edouarde Laporte (Michel Subor, being astonishingly sinister without ever changing expression), and his niece Justine (Lola Créton) is hospitalised after a mental breakdown brought on by sexual abuse by Laporte that has caused severe physical damage (that a corn cob was used as a sex toy should be enough of a clue for you as to what this entails). Frustrated by his sister’s inability to protect the girl – and, indeed, possible complicity with her husband in what has happened – he sets out to take his revenge, seducing the man’s mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and working his way into the life of his young son. But other than this spot of cuckolding, the revenge seems half-baked and ill-planned. He engages in some clumsy, awkward fights with henchmen of Laporte (which are realistic but deeply uncinematic – real fights don’t look like movie fights, and Denis is clearly not interested in indulging our expectations) and visits the scene of Justine’s abuse, but on the whole he dithers like Hamlet, being distracted as his relationship with Raphaelle develops into something more real.
Denis deliberately weaves an unsolvable puzzle of a film here, one which will frustrate as much as it engages. While the basic narrative is essentially film noir, she constantly subverts our expectations of the genre – Marco might be a lost soul on an ultimately doomed mission of retribution, but beyond that, nothing is quite as we would expect it. The characters are less clear cut and the mission of revenge far more ambiguous. Even Justine remains a mysterious figure – when she escapes the hospital that she is being held in, we start to question how much of an unwilling victim she actually is – while certainly abused, she has an ambiguity about her that is unsettling. Her final scenes have a curious liberation about them that will leave you confused about your own reactions. Marco’s revenge might not be in her name.
In terms of atmosphere, Denis creates a story that feels as though it could be taken from a Derek Raymond novel – it’s downbeat, sleazy, nihilistic and despairing. The film plays with narrative structure – an early scene suggests a grim end for Raphaelle’s child, though it’s unclear if this is a nightmare, a premonition or both, and the movie frequently intercuts past and present. It’s full of visually striking moments that pack a real bunch – the police investigation into the suicide, Justine walking naked down a rain-swept street, blood pouring from between her legs, the final car ride and the trip to the ‘scene of the crime’ all are stunning moments, helped by the astonishing, throbbing score by Tindersticks. The final scenes, where the nature of the abuse and the abusers is revealed, are genuinely disturbing and dark, and leave you with no sense of closure.
And this is the difficulty with the film – it continually sets out to frustrate, and does so remarkably well. The story offers no sense of catharsis for the viewer. There is no victory for the morally superior, if for no other reason than the fact that there are no morally superior people here. Marco might seem the classic vengeful hero, but of course there is nothing really admirable in revenge, and his actions – both executed and planned – are arguably as reprehensible as any of the crimes committed against him. The film is, after all, called Bastards, not Bastard, and all the male characters here are negative, self-obsessed people who don’t care who gets hurt as they pursue their goals. The women don’t come out of the story very well either, creating a sense of misanthropy that is fascinating but not necessarily entertaining.
The coldness and cynicism at the heart of the film will alienate many viewers, I suspect, no matter how great the central performances, the visual flair and the impressive construct might be. It’s an easier film to admire than enjoy, and one that will not leave you in a good place after viewing. If you like your cinema dark and difficult, then you will probably find this up your street (though even then, you are probably going to be left frustrated by the ending). Not a film for everyone then, and we should at least admire Denis for being willing to push the limits – not to mention audience buttons – as she reinvents the thriller for a more cynical age.