by Matt Levine
Divisive reactions are nothing new for Claire Denis’ films, but Bastards may be her most polarizing film yet—at the very least, it challenges Trouble Every Day (2001) for that achievement. A loose, vitriolic reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Bastards is a grimy tale of suicide, murder, money, incest, and revenge—though by the end, it’s difficult to discern the tormentors from the tormented. The film’s title, we come to realize, describes all of humanity: existentially speaking, all of us are merely sick bastards.
Director: Claire Denis
Producers: Brahim Chioua, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Théry-Lapiney
Writers: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Cinematographer: Agnes Godard
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Music: Stuart Staples
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Créton, Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Florence Loiret Caille
Premiere: May 21, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 23, 2013
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
Such venomous disdain for the film’s admittedly repugnant characters borders on nihilism; the empty world that Denis portrays, ruled by greed and lust, has no room for human empathy or redeeming values. This bleak philosophy could have made for a powerful condemnation of human nature, especially in the hands of an assured stylist such as Denis—one can imagine a caustic existential nightmare in the vein of Polanski’s similarly cynical Chinatown (1974). Unfortunately, though, Bastards’ bitterness is so all-consuming that it’s hard to invest emotionally in any of these characters: dreary sufferers sleepwalking through an awful world, their atrocities fail to affect us because they rarely resemble identifiable humans.
As usual in Denis’ films, the twisting plot is revealed to us in brief, impressionistic glimmers. Gradually, we come to understand that Marco (Vincent Lindon), a captain in the French navy who has willfully distanced himself from humanity (his family especially), returns to Paris to support his sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille), through an unthinkable crisis. Sandra’s husband has recently killed himself, leaping from a skyscraper during a rainstorm; their hospitalized daughter, Justine (Lola Créton, nearly silent but hypnotic to watch as always), has also attempted suicide, and it is soon revealed that she’s been severely physically and sexually abused. One of the family’s creditors, a monstrous, wealthy industrialist named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), appears to be involved in Justine’s rape, though as Marco investigates further, the shocking circumstances surrounding her abuse become even more horrific, suggesting her parents’ complicity.
An even grislier plot twist awaits at the film’s end—it’s so skin-crawlingly disturbing that I dare not describe it here, as the final scene undeniably leaves you thunderstruck—but until then we watch a dour, stoic Marco move in to an abandoned flat near Laporte’s family, concocting his revenge. Laporte is married to an enigmatic, beautiful young wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), who impulsively begins an affair with Marco. Occasionally, Denis and her co-screenwriter, Jon-Pol Fargeau, provide their characters with spare, believable dialogue in order to provide fleeting insight into their backstories—for example, when Raphaëlle tells Marco that she and Laporte were truly in love early in their marriage, or when Marco visits an old navy buddy, indicating the more tranquil, isolated life he used to lead. Mostly, though, Denis' style is abstruse and dreary, coldly observing these stoic bastards as they fuck, cheat, lie, and kill, doomed to damnation by their own petty injustices.
There are some awful depictions of human evil in Bastards, especially Michel Subor’s gargoyle-like capitalist: bedecked in beautiful suits yet scowling from his sunken eyes, he’s an unforgettable vision of the cruelty humans are capable of. Marco’s sister-in-law Sandra is also unfathomably callous, albeit in subtler ways. Yet it’s a sign of the film’s pervasive hopelessness that all of the characters are mean, deluded, and self-absorbed to some extent. The tempestuous affair between Marco and Raphaëlle initially seems like a glimmer of hope (or at least connection) amidst the rottenness, but even these two characters are defined by their own lust and need for self-gratification—and in any case, their relationship is put to an abrupt end by a bullet senselessly fired by one of the film’s “heroes.” No one is heroic; we’re all bastards. We simply spend our lives trying to convince ourselves otherwise.
It’s unfair to compare Bastards to The Bad Sleep Well, as Denis really only took inspiration and a general storyline from Kurosawa’s film, but even so the strengths of the latter reveal the weaknesses of the former. The Bad Sleep Well is contextualized by Japan’s “economic miracle,” the burgeoning of global capitalist enterprise in Japan from the late 1940s onward, which solidified the country as one of the world’s economic powerhouses in a matter of decades. But, the film asks, what was sacrificed in such a transition? The prioritization of wealth and self-security in modern capitalism fattens the pockets of those who are willing to take by force, through greed and brutality and apathy. Whereas the “bastards” in The Bad Sleep Well emerge out of a socioeconomic environment, Denis’ approach is more existential: it’s not capitalism that breeds such awful monsters, but an inherent corruptibility in human nature. Neither approach is more legitimate than the other, but Denis’ broader commentary doesn’t really constitute an exploration of human evil; it simply depicts it, and perhaps wallows in it, reminding us that human beings can be detestable without saying anything interesting about such barbarism. (Michael Haneke’s Cache, or even his much-reviled Funny Games, are infinitely more provocative in the ways that they deconstruct the baseness of humanity.)
Denis’ idiosyncratic aesthetic is a double-edged sword: at its best, it can create something hypnotic, poetic, and overwhelming, as in Beau travail (2000) or L’Intrus (2004). But her obscure plotlines, opaque characters, and jagged, often discordant imagery can also seem cold and impenetrable, as in Bastards or the flawed White Material (2009). Such a rough style is what makes her so exciting, but it can also defuse the emotional subtext of her films. Here, Agnes Godard’s cinematography—shot with a digital camera for the first time in Denis’ career—is appropriately skittish and drained of color, depicting a dark and volatile world. Obviously this is an issue of personal preference, but the muddy blacks and flat, grubby interiors are an unfortunate departure from the ravishing imagery of her last Paris-set film, 35 Shots of Rum. As if we couldn’t tell from Bastards’ content alone that the film was supposed to be gray and dreary, we’re trapped in a nauseating aesthetic as well.
Despite this stylistic flaw, though, Denis is too accomplished a filmmaker not to provide some hauntingly effective sequences. Working with editor Annette Dutertre, she achieves a poetic rhythm through cryptic montages and moody transitions, sometimes interrupting scenes with imagery that will reappear later, in the manner of a musical motif. The ghostly score by Stuart Staples of the band Tindersticks is also unsettlingly effective, especially during a scene in which Justine purposefully drives a car off the road as her second suicide attempt, or in the very last scene—a visualization of human degradation that comprises one of the most disturbing endings in recent memory.
Given its abrasive style and unnerving story, Bastards can’t help but achieve a queasy power. But we relate to its characters in the same way that the film itself does: from a distance, observing their despair with pity but little empathy. Denis’ ambition is noble, hypothetically: to vicariously experience the lowest depths to which we can succumb, through a brash and discordant aesthetic to match. But the miseries undergone onscreen bear too little resemblance to human nature. If Denis makes movies the way Ornette Coleman made jazz, think of Bastards as an especially mournful and cacophonous shriek—it’s easy to appreciate the mechanics, but the music fails to excite.