Bastards (La Salauds)

December 2, 2013

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Claire Denis is one of my favourite living filmmakers, and while I’ll readily admit she’s not for everyone, she’s developed a distinctive aesthetic and approach that, when in the right mood, can be absolutely enrapturing even when the subject material is queasy or downright repulsive.  In her latest film, Bastards, Denis makes the switch from film to digital with her trusted long-time cinematographer, which is appropriate given the film’s visual insistence on darkness.  It is also her angriest film, I feel, and it’s fascinating to watch her abstract humanistic approach take on something so utterly despicable and hopeless.  

When his brother-in-law commits suicide and his niece winds up in hospital after a brutal sexual assault, Marco (Vincent Lindon) quits his job captaining freighters to return to Paris and get to the bottom of what happened.  As the story begins, he seems to know at least a little as he rents a large, empty apartment above Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), the mistress of the wealthy magnate Eduoard Laporte (Michel Subor), who had some role to play in his family’s tragedy.  We learn that Marco gave up his part of the family inheritance, which was ownership of a shoe factory, in favour of leaving that kind of stability behind for a more typically masculine life of freedom from familial and romantic responsibility.  He has a daughter, but his interaction with her, though loving, also signifies a welcome removal.  One imagine he wouldn’t be such a good father if he had to be there all the time, and given his sister’s behaviour, he probably suspects something rotten in gene pool, even if he doesn’t realise just how rotten until it’s too late.

He begins an affair with Raphaelle, for reasons never really understood, though one imagines there’s an attraction to trying to understand the man he feels to be the ultimate evil.  Meanwhile, he attempts to piece together just what happened with his brother-in-law and more importantly, with his niece (Lola Creton), who doesn’t speak a word but whose performance indicates an almost dignified acceptance of the physical and mental traumas visited upon her.  Denis repeatedly brings back a sequence where Creton walks naked, save for high heels, down a street in France before the police pick her up.  There’s an ethereal defiance to her, even as blood trickles down her leg after an assualt that we’ll find to be particularly vicious.  Denis views her tragedy as separate from her person, and even as her ultimate end is mortally unhappy, it’s accomplished with a controlled uncontrollability.  The best response to such torment might be no response at all.

It’s certainly presented as a noirish story, though one more suited perhaps to the neo-noir revival where characters are faced with an increasingly corrupt world they can’t comprehend as opposed to the more traditional “character causes his own doom” strand of the 1940s.  As is Denis’ style, it’s relatively typical narrative isn’t completely obvious on first watch, as her penchant for elliptical editing and her desire to get under the skin and into the tiny nooks and crannies of the story and, by extension, its characters trumps the needs for straightforward storytelling.  Her characters move in dark spaces, whether in the apartment building in France, the grimly faltering shoe factory, or the dilapidated sex house in the country (which, echoing her last film White Material, can only be cleansed in fire).  I was reminded of the final scene of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, in which Marlowe finally has enough and lets loose a righteous cinematic howl.  Marco arguably begins his story in that state, and though he is in a sense a man out of time from a cultural understanding of morality, is still shocked and appalled by what he finds.  Subor’s Laporte is delightfully sinister in the most wealthily banal of ways.  He understands more than he lets on, and calls his son his “seed”.  He also has that ability special to the rich, where he can use his money and power to force those in need into positions of depravity, and then castigates them for said depravity.

In a lot of ways, Bastards is the mirror of the director’s 35 Rhums, where a second or third generation family of immigrants who live on the edges of Paris and work the trainlines have formed a surrogate family with neighbours.  That film, though I believe it to be ambivalent in the end about all the necessities of family, sees that sense of community as integral to life.  Here, traditional family ties are poison, and Marco’s desire to do the right thing by them only leads to sickening destruction.  As I said, it’s an incredibly angry film, and in the world of Bastards, there seems no limits or no escape from the levels of corruption that come with greed, money, and power.

Not that everything works, and I’d say this is her least successful film in a while, but that’s a very relative statement given the quality of her output.  The biggest problem for me was the Raphaelle character, whom I could never really get a handle on.  I can see why she does what she does, but there’s something that just doesn’t hold about her behaviour throughout.  I’m also not entirely convinced on the necessity for the final sequence, which reveals the act of transgression that sets off the story, although it is effectively filmed through grainy video surveillance and scored by a hauntingly grim rendition of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” by longtime collaborators The Tindersticks.  Despite these issues – the last of which I haven’t entirely resolved as of yet – it’s a good piece of work from one of the greatest artists we have.  Visceral anger delivered in such an abstract, elliptical style is unique, and even if the timely nature of the iniquities of the wealthy seems simplistic, there’s plenty of depth dotted around.

-M

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