Claire Denis: Bastards (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Sep/150

Claire Denis: Bastards (2013)

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Marco's family needs him.  His brother-in-law committed suicide, a creditor holding his estranged family in debt may be to blame, and his niece was found after surviving a brutal sexual assault.  Marco returns home, sets his eye on the creditors wife, and begins to unravel what poison is killing his family.  Claire Denis directs Bastards from a screenplay co-written by Jean-Pol Fargeau and stars Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni.

See me nowIt didn’t strike me until halfway through Claire DenisBastards just what is the crowning achievement of her films. They’ve been rooted in different genres, ranging from horror with the hypnotic Trouble Every Day to the languid near-ethnographic work of White Material. With a skill I’ve rarely seen outside the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Denis edits to emotional beats within the story instead of on specific actions. I think of the moment when her camera lingers on Protée long enough to see him weep under a shower, or when Dr. Brown stops to hungrily smell a woman’s hair as he stands too close to her in the train.

So it makes perfect sense that Denis would come to noir at some point. As the latest film in her work it also stands as one of the most narratively obscure, hiding the truth of the poisoned family history which plays out in those little emotional moments which propel the story. As an intellectual exercise I’m intrigued, especially since noir is defined as much by its evocative photography as it is by the characters who must insist to themselves or others they are doing the right thing.

Denis, who cowrote the screenplay with frequent partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, does not leave the characters of Bastards much room to explain themselves. This makes for wonderful imagery, and a stunning opening chapter which worked so well the rest was almost certain to be a disappointment. But the narrative cohesion is stretched to the limit, partly because of Denis’ editing style and also casting all the relevant women in the movie as slight variations on the same look. I was entranced by the visuals, but when I started thinking about where I was in the story I’d get lost.

Marco, always with women on his mind, even if they aren't his kin.

Marco, always with women on his mind, even if they aren't his kin.

This is perhaps part of the design. Three women occupy Marco’s (Vincent Lindon) thoughts, all svelte brunettes with some degree of desire intertwined with his quest.  I had to start looking for specific physical quirks or emotional tones to differentiate between the three. This is a great way to show how noir in general has been a cesspool of masculine insecurities drawing in women and turning them into the same stock character. But as a tool of the narrative it made me more confused than intrigued.

Still, that intrigue comes out in nearly perfect character moments. When Marco leaves his Navy post to return home Denis frames Marco and his luggage in separate shots. The only thing separating the luggage from being lost at sea is a good strong wave, giving us a hint as to not only Marco’s mental space but how willing he is to discard his naval life on a whim. Then there are those magnificent shots with Marco and the object of his seduction, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), who wade in the darkness waiting for the other’s touch while he grills her about the life she chose with her selfish husband (Michel Subor). She’s drawn to the mystery, the guilt, the very essence of noir which Marco inhabits, and he treats her like many noirs do – as a disposable means to an end.

Denis and Fargeau’s dialogue is doled out sparingly, and brilliantly layered with meanings we don’t understand at first. When Marco meets with his niece Justine (Lola Créton), in the hospital after surviving a sexual assault, she says – rather pointedly – how she still loves him. Who “him” is will be answered, but in the moment it is a painful realization others must learn to cope with when dealing with survivors of sexual assault. But give Bastards time, and the waves of communication flowing through that one sentence mean more than Marco will ever know.

Bastards is rich with the texture of shadow be it ominous, suffocating, melancholic, or suspicious.

Bastards is rich with the texture of shadow be it ominous, suffocating, melancholic, or suspicious.

Which is as good a point as any to pivot to Lindon’s performance as Marco. Denis said that she wrote Bastards in part to give Lindon a starring role and showcase his strengths. To that end, Bastards succeeds magnificently. Lindon taps into a rare reserve of introverted frustration, antagonistic to the point of inciting connections with people who respond to his quiet ferocity rather than warmth. While scenes rarely play out without Lindon, my hat tips toward Créton’s quiet desperation as Justine. She leaks like an emotional faucet when someone bothers to listen to her, and her calculating stare hints at the devastation to come. Devastation which could have been avoided had Marco not become the “hero” of his estranged family’s story, and simply listened.

In this respect Bastards isn’t really saying anything other directors have not already covered. This makes the eventual realizations less of a shock and more the culmination of genre tropes which predate Denis’ birth and will likely be around long after both of us are dead. But is that the real pain of Bastards, that it’s easier to imagine my death than the removal of the social and economic structures which make this sort of story too easy to imagine?

Perhaps I’m wrong about Bastards being a noir. The finality Bastards ends on, and all the implications which come with the late film revelations, are the hallmarks of an ongoing horror Denis frequently confronts. My dissatisfaction with the structure is beside the point. Denis has gazed unflinchingly at the stories we tell, and found them disturbingly commonplace, no matter the emotional resonance of the moment.

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Tail - BastardsBastards (2013)

Directed by Claire Denis.
Screenplay written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau.
Starring Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni.

Posted by Andrew

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