Claire Denis’s films tend to be atmospheric, and Bastards is no exception. In its opening, a torrential rain cascades at night under yellow lighting, like a Biblical plague of piss visited on the world.
With their astonishing density of mood, Denis’s films often register less as narratives per se than as richly realized environments. They are like dramatic aquariums—with all the enclosure that suggests—in which her characters move, although we can’t always quite tell which direction they’re moving in, or why.
Although it’s one of her most atmospherically rich works yet, Bastards initially comes across as a minor or marginal Denis film—not a resounding statement like Beau Travail (99) or The Intruder (04), and hard to know quite where to place in her oeuvre. As a film noir of sorts, it’s akin to her other genre exercise to date, the sort-of horror film Trouble Every Day (01)—the film of hers I like least, but hotly defended by many, not least by people who love the very idea of Denis playing with genre.
Bastards also has the looseness of Denis’s balmily romantic family drama 35 Shots of Rum (08) and her erotic vignette Friday Night (02), although here the dreamy mood turns baleful and subtly toxic. And in its fragmentation, Bastards is akin to The Intruder, Denis’s great jigsaw movie, although it’s nowhere near as extreme and inscrutable. In the end, Bastards may even be her simplest film, almost to the point of narrative banality. But even if it is merely a sketch or fragment, an elegant offhand gesture, this film is pure Denis and richly unsettling.
There’s certainly a streak of casualness about Bastards, in that Denis more or less came up with it from scratch: production company Wild Bunch thought it was time she made a new film and challenged her and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau to deliver a synopsis in a week. Fueling themselves with some recent headline anecdotes and an idea about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the sexual abuse of power, they responded with something that feels like a pulp readymade. A man kills himself one rainy night, and a young woman is found wandering the nocturnal streets, brutalized and naked except for a pair of high heels. The man is Jacques Silvestri (Laurent Grévill), head of a company that makes just such shoes, and the woman is his daughter Justine (Lola Créton, whose eerie, gazelle-like beauty you’ll recognize from Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air).
Jacques leaves a note for his brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a tanker captain. Marco comes ashore and dedicates himself to finding out what’s gone wrong in his family—whose ruin appears to be the doing of an intensely nasty business mogul, Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). Laporte seems as ancient, and as powerful, as the dinosaurs, Subor’s basilisk features suggestive of a malign moral petrification. He has a younger trophy wife, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), in whose bleakly furnished apartment he only occasionally spends nights: slipping into bed on one visit, Laporte gruffly commands, “Branle-moi” (“Jerk me off”)—so you know that Raphaelle is likely to be open to a bit of relative subtlety from Marco, who’s moved into the flat upstairs.
The slowly unfolding detective plot isn’t much of one—not by Raymond Chandler standards, at least. The main momentum is provided by Marco’s gradual detachment from his own life—his career and his daughters—while pursuing the case. He also becomes progressively less mobile: he first rolls up in Paris in a gorgeous mint-green car, but soon sells it to a friend, and before long is seen waiting at a bus stop at night. That’s nothing short of castration for a hard-boiled investigator.
Also involved in the intrigue are a sinister, arrogant young man (Denis’s young acteur-fétiche Grégoire Colin) and a blowsy, pregnant young woman (Florence Loiret-Caille) who seem to be the proprietors of a secluded orgy room with camera facilities in the ceiling and discarded corncobs littering the floor. If you get the reference to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, you’ll instantly guess what kind of nastiness is at stake.
The loaded title tells you how thin the basic conception is: in a world of bastards like Laporte, a good man like Marco ends up a bastard too, and it’s precisely by trying to do good that he’ll be tarnished. The film’s payoff, in a final sequence using surveillance footage, provides a morbidly nasty frisson, but it’s not as if we don’t see it coming. But together with the climactic twist which precedes it—and which does, in fact, come as a shock—this ending marks Bastards as something like Denis’s own Chinatown.
The readymade genre aspects of Bastards made me think on a first viewing that this was less than prime Denis, but on a revisit, it really got under my skin. Moderate touches of fragmentation (Denis is working with a new editor, Annette Dutertre) add to the overall unease—the repetition of Créton’s wounded, elegant nightwalk, and a hard-to-place sequence (dream? flash forward?) in which militia search the woods at night. Denis has been compared in the past to various jazz musicians, and Bastards certainly shows her as a director who makes cinematic music—the slender plot, like a well-known tune, serves as basis for a densely colored tone poem. Look at the morbid miasma of the opening rain scenes, the brief precarious clarity of a white sea glimpsed early on, the nightscapes throughout that are all the thicker for the sparse, brooding score by Denis’s faithful soundtrackers Tindersticks. This is, incidentally, Denis’s first digital film, with Agnès Godard shooting on the RED Epic.
Among what you might call her musical motifs, Denis uses faces. Some people that she’s partial to as presences drop in briefly, barely registering as characters proper but making striking impressions, sometimes in close-ups that seem incongruously out of proportion to their part in the narrative. Singer Christophe Miossec has a non-role as a friend of Marco, but you’re mesmerized by his gaunt, eroded features, almost as lived-in as Lindon’s. Also glimpsed are the underrated Hélène Fillières as a bank manager, old regular Alex Descas as a doctor, and Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas, who drops by to offer Marco dire warnings about his career prospects.
Among long-term members of the Denis repertory family, there’s hawk-faced Colin, whose presence, since his former ingénu days in Beau Travail, seems more and more to imply the promise of violence; and Loiret-Caille, peerless in France for embodying faintly deranged, oversexed tackiness. When these two and Créton are seen entangled on in a nocturnal car sequence, the sheerly unsavory sensuality is something that even the David Lynch of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive would envy.
Central to the film is the brooding presence of Vincent Lindon, working with Denis for the first time since he simmered as a muscular romancer in Friday Night. Denis has often celebrated tough men as troubled embodiments of sexuality—most famously in the austere muscle beach party that was Beau Travail—and Lindon’s hard-bitten, proletarian heaviness fits perfectly here. He’s a bit Bogart, a lot Jean Gabin or Lino Ventura, with a hangdog face and an air of having knocked about a bit, and of having been knocked about. There’s a great moody shot of him and Mastroianni early on—profiled in close-up, riding an elevator in the dark—that prefigures their later closeness. Mastroianni—a newcomer to Denis—is terrific too, her Raphaelle elegantly nervy with an edge of jaded perversity (it’s partly in that beauty mark, partly that troubling facial echo of the actress’s dad Marcello). She has a quizzical alertness, as if she’s partly sensing trouble, partly eager for it to kick in. When Raphaelle and Marco finally get it on—after some great tight-lipped flirting over Marco’s white shirt—you feel you’re seeing two mature, don’t-give-a-damn sexualities casting niceties aside and getting down to the rough nitty-gritty.
The film teasingly circles around its dark and ultimately depressing sexual revelations, but there’s something about these two cutting through the sleaze with an animality that’s reassuringly pure—or at least, sweatily, hungrily no-nonsense.