At times hypnotic yet disturbing, Claire Denis gives us a low-key mystery-noir that doesn’t settle for anything less than challenging.
Dir. Claire Denis
2013 | France | Drama/Mystery | 100 mins | 1.85:1 | French & English
R21 (passed clean) for sexual scenes and nudity
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Michel Subor, Lola Creton
Plot: Marco returns to Paris after his brother-in-law’s suicide, where he targets the man his sister believes caused the tragedy – though he is ill-prepared for her secrets as they quickly muddy the waters.
Awards: Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes)
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Subject Matter: Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at Alliance Francaise screening – first published 14 Nov 2015)
As usual for a Claire Denis picture, this may frustrate viewers who demand plot linearity and clarity, not to mention there’s no satisfaction gained except for the satisfaction of unraveling a sordid and chilling mystery through its lead protagonist Marco, played by Vincent Lindon who recently won the Cannes Best Actor award for The Measure of a Man (2015).
But Denis is only interested to peel off nothing more than a layer, never trying to help us to make sense of her work, yet enticing us to peel more layers on our own. What we find is what we get, but if the act of peeling is the satisfaction, then Bastards is an excellent film.
I think this is a more interesting work than Denis’ previous film, White Material (2009), about white supremacy in a land of dark-skinned natives while a civil war looms.
In Bastards, Denis’ seductive mastery of form and style is evident as she constructs with intent, a loose narrative about Marco, who visits her sister after her husband committed suicide, leaving behind a daughter who would become the heart (or more accurately, the body) of the film’s mystery.
We see her in a series of enigmatic nude shots in flashback, but as we work out the pieces, the explicit nudity becomes a precursor to something more shocking.
Claire Denis wrote the film specifically around Vincent Lindon. After telling him she wanted to work with him again, he told her that he would act in whatever she would write in.
Bastards echoes the noir pictures of old, particularly the low-key, grimy European arthouse thriller. It deals with a disturbing, if self-contained, underworld where power absolutely corrupts.
Saying anything more would unnecessarily peel more layers, though it would not hurt to say that Denis’ film is provocative and doesn’t settle for anything less than challenging.
The music by Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks fame) is nothing short of hypnotic – atmospheric yet pulsating at times, excellently underscoring some of the film’s more disturbing scenes.
Bastards may not be a defining work from Denis, but her stylish if fragmented filmmaking style has evolved through a range of genres and subjects over the years. I am convinced that she is one of the most important female auteurs working in cinema today.