Directed by: Claire Denis.
Written by: Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis.
Starring: Vincent Lindon (Marco Silvestri), Chiara Mastroianni (Raphaëlle), Julie Bataille (Sandra), Michel Subor (Edouard Laporte), Lola Créton (Justine), Alex Descas (Dr. Béthanie), Grégoire Colin (Xavier), Florence Loiret Caille (Elysée), Christophe Miossec (Guy), Yann Antoine Bizette (Joseph), Jeanne Disson (Audrey), Laurent Grévill (Jacques).
The opening frames of Claire Denis’ Bastards lets us know we are in the film noir world. A bald man, in a fancy suit looks out into the dark, raining night – looking miserable. Soon, he’ll be on the dead on the concrete – having thrown himself to his death. A beautiful young girl walks naked down the street – wearing only a pair of high heels that click as she walks slowly, a dazed look on her face. A woman blames the police and their apathy for her husband’s suicide, and the state of her daughter. A grizzled older man gets a phone call – a family emergency – which makes him go AWOL from his job at sea, and head back to land to help his family. As with many of Denis’ films, she makes no effort to explain everything from the outset – preferring instead to let events unfold, and the audience to figure them out as they go along.
The second man, we soon learn, is Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon). The first man was Jacques (Laurent Grevill), an old friend, and current brother-in-law, married to Marco’s sister Sandra (Julie Bataille). The naked young woman is Justine (Lola Creton), their daughter, Vincent’s niece. Jacques and Sandra run a failing shoe factory, and Sandra blames all of their problems on Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), an exceedingly wealthy, powerful man – not only does he own most of their debt, he is also the man they have accused of abusing Justine – and when we find out just how abused she was, it is stomach churning. Marco has come back to help out – although it isn’t immediately clear just what that means. What we do know is that he is moving in upstairs from Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), the younger mistress of Laporte, and her young son. He charms his way into her life – and her pants – but maybe charms is the wrong word here. He is an old fashioned type of guy, and his seduction of her is gruff, and almost wordless – she puts up little resistance to his advances.
Marco is a classic noir “hero” – a normal guy who is duped into doing things he would not normally do. He is tough and intelligent – but also almost hopelessly naïve. In classic Hollywood noir terms, he is the type of character Robert Ryan would have excelled at playing. You really cannot call Mastroianni’ Raphaelle a femme fatale – she doesn’t seduce him into doing anything for her – some will even complain that she is too passive. She doesn’t seem too interested in who he is, what he does, or why he is there. Given the sexual relationship we see between and the older Laporte, it may well be that she just wants him for sex. He tries to get under her skin, but she seems impervious to his efforts – she doesn’t judge him – doesn’t want to know why he’s living in an expensive apartment, with no furniture, and yet has pawned his watch and sold his car. Marco is drawn back in by his sister – who has a one track mind of getting even with Laporte – but he doesn’t ask her the right questions – in fact, he doesn’t really ask her anything at all. That something doesn’t quite seem right about everything she is saying seems obvious to the audience – but not to Marco, who just accepts it – and then is shocked as secrets start being revealed. The film gets darker and darker, right up until its shocking final scene – which finally explains what precisely happened in a dirty shack, littered with bloody corn cobs.
In many ways, Bastards is more straight forward than much of Denis’ recent work. Yes, there are flashbacks and forwards, and she never gives the audience all the information they want until the final scene, yet the film is more straight forward than films like White Material or The Intruder. The film’s violence – sexual and otherwise – is strong and shocking, but then given the material it pretty much needs to be. Denis is not just using the violence to shock the audience, its part of her larger narrative arc, inspired by Faulkner’s Sanctuary. It will likely offend some, as the victims in the movie seem passive – almost accepting of their victimization (they certainly do not fight back against it). A character like Lola Creton’s damaged young woman remains an enigma right until the end – a victim of just about everyone else in the movie, but one whose interior world is never explored. Raphaelle is a character who also threatens to be an enigma as well – is she just using Marco, or is there something deeper going on there – right until her final moments, when the character snaps into focus. Sandra goes from grieving widow into something much more insidious as the movie goes along. Laporte, we sense from the outset is sinister – it doesn’t help that he seems to be made to look like Robert Blake in Lost Highway – but just what his character does still surprises. Into this world, Marco comes wholly unprepared. Lindon does a marvelous job in his role – making Marco into a man’s man – the type we don’t see much of in films anymore – but one who ultimately is a lot softer than he first appears. The poor bastard has no idea what’s coming for him.