Claire Denis’ latest effort Bastards finds her edging into darker territory once again, but this time with only moderately positive results. Thanks to some great performances and Denis’ always exceptional ability to mine suspense out of the purposefully vague, Bastards saves itself from needless convolution and a story that’s pretty much on the level of a late 90s American boilerplate thriller.
Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon), an oil tanker captain, quits his job to deal with a wrenching personal crisis on the mainland. His main reason for returning is the suicide of his former brother in law and the sexual abuse of his niece at the hands of a lecherous old rich guy (Michel Subor) that he plans to exact his revenge on. Leveraging everything he already owns, selling off his life insurance, and generally ignoring his own children and his ex-wife-slash-partner in a failing business, Marco sets about to seek answers and revenge. He moves into an empty apartment in the same building as Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), a woman being used almost as a concubine for the old man and the mother of his last remaining heir.
Marco almost immediately begins sleeping with Raphaelle, but it’s never immediately clear if he’s doing it simply to get closer to his intended target or if he genuinely has feelings for her. It’s one of the few moments of ambiguity that works in Denis’ favour here. As with most of her best work, there’s an immediate sense of disorientation and unease without knowing much about any of the characters directly from the outset. The problems with Bastards arise from Denis’ telling what amounts to a pretty straightforward narrative with time shifting elements that act as a detriment to the story, making somewhat obvious ahead of time what her films would normally leave either up to the imagination or to be discovered later.
There isn’t necessarily a plot dump or anything like that. Denis is far too clever and adept of a filmmaker to screw up that badly, but there are a few things hinted at and outright shown that feel like foregone conclusions as soon as they come up again later in the film. Without really going into spoilers or details, they aren’t small elements to the story, but they are some of the most emotionally impactful ones. It’s puzzling to think about why Denis would offer up such a seemingly trite gambit off the bat, and it might make more sense on a second viewing, but even then it wouldn’t make the narrative any less cumbersome.
And yet, despite that, Denis asserts herself well into yet another genre that she hasn’t tried her hand at before. Mounting her first revenge thriller, she brings her keen eye for sexuality, the relationships between men and women, and familial dynamics all to the dinner table alongside her ability to craft genuine suspense that she hasn’t really toyed with since 2001’s vastly more successful horror hybrid Trouble Every Day. The revenge here is as realistic as any other Denis’ scenario. It’s purposefully messy and unfocused in very human ways (another reason why the time shifts are uncalled for), and instead of gloss or sleaze, she brings a genuine darkness and malaise. It’s one of the few films that can probably make the active seeking of revenge as vainglorious as it truly is. Also worth noting is Denis’ continued emphasis on the aftermath of events rather than the salacious depictions of them. Her films might all be sexually charged, but they’re never designed to actually get anyone off, especially on violent material.
She also benefits greatly from an excellent leading performance from Lindon, whose hangdog expression never fully goes away even when he finds himself tussling with some of the film’s more villainous types. Mastroianni doesn’t have much to do except for wither her way through the first half of the film, caught unwittingly between two opposing forces, but once she finds out what’s going on, her transition into a motherly character in fear for her child’s well being is quite effective. Also, while kept mostly off screen for roughly the first hour or so, Subor makes the most of being the bad guy. It should also almost go without saying at this point that frequent collaborators Tindersticks turn in an incredibly haunting soundtrack once again.
Overall, Bastards might be Denis’ weakest film, but that’s like saying you own a lesser Picasso that no one’s paying millions of dollars for. Aside from The Intruder, it’s the only film she lets get away from her usually fairly controlled and steady grasp. It still packs quite the wallop when it needs to, and it’s better than many thrillers of a similar nature. There’s just something a bit off in this endeavour. It feels like an effort made by a filmmaker known for bucking what’s considered standard trying to obfuscate standard material. The results are mixed, but still worthy of a watch. It might actually serve as one of the best entry points in the future for those wanting to familiarize themselves with Denis’ work. It easily highlights her strengths if one can ignore the weaknesses.