Claire Denis is included on my personal list of the most interesting movie directors working today. Ever since I first saw her debut feature film, the semi-autobiographical Chocolat (1988), I have been fascinated by her unique style: nonlinear narrative, strong focus on characters, mesmerizing atmosphere, visual storytelling, meticulous scene composition, and inspired location work. Therefore, I wanted to like Bastards—the title is open to interpretation, by the way—a lot, but I ended up liking it a little. The film is a minor work in Claire Denis’ oeuvre, but even her lesser works are definitely worth seeing.
Thematically, the movie is not quite what one might expect from Denis, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Pol Fargeau. The thriller elements are more pronounced and the drama more directly provocative in this film than in any of Denis’ other works that I have seen (which is not, alas, all of them). Another thing that stands out is that the movie can arguably be classified as a film noir, in part due to its oppressive themes and Agnès Godard’s intentionally murky cinematography.
Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon), the male protagonist, carries out his own investigation of his brother-in-law’s suicide. Gradually, he discovers several dark secrets. It takes a while to banish from one’s mind the final scene of the movie, in which the ugly truth is finally revealed.
In the case of Bastards, its nonlinear storyline unfortunately turns out to be more confusing than necessary. The unconventionally structured narrative certainly keeps one’s brain occupied with trying to determine the order of events. While a chronological narrative might have benefited the film in one regard, it could also have transformed the proceedings into a rather bland movie. Consequently, the best way to get the most out of the film may be to give up on trying to figure out how everything fits together and instead simply go with the flow of the story.
It must, however, be acknowledged that the movie earns points for being unpredictable as it eschews cinematic conventions left and right. Additionally, Bastards has a strong, almost hypnotic atmosphere that draws the viewer into the movie, regardless of whether or not they find the story as such engaging. As usual for a film made by Claire Denis, the English indie rock band Tindersticks provides the musical score, and this time it is appropriately melancholic and unsettling.
Denis gets solid performances from her cast. Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni, the latter in the role of Raphaëlle, take full advantage of every moment of character development that the screenplay affords them, which makes their characters come across as real people in spite of the fractured narrative. Michel Subor is terrific as the sleazy Edouard Laporte.
(Original title: Les salauds.)