Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Vincent London, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Lola Créton
Running time: 100 min
Release: 14th February
The titles of Claire Denis’ films tend to be poetic and oblique, like the films themselves—White Material, Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day. Bastards is, obviously, a little snappier—so too is the film.Marco Silvestri (Vincent London) is a ship’s captain who goes AWOL when his brother-in-law kills himself. Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) is in hospital, and his sister (Julie Bataille) blames rich loanshark Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) for everything. It’s up to Marco to investigate—for a career sailor, he wears the private detective’s poker face remarkably well.
The first half hour is typical Denis, where scenes to come are foreshadowed out of sequence; a dazed and naked teenager walking the streets, a man staring at the rain from an upstairs window, Marco out on the Indian Ocean. Then, and quite suddenly, the film tautens into a shocking noir-ish thriller. We’re likely to have watched those opening scenes like they were so much arthouse drift; now it looks as though they may have been clues.
Denis is a director of the ‘shoot fast, edit slowly’ school; her films are often sloppy, obscure, and erratically paced. They’re also some of the best in recent decades. No other filmmaker working today can communicate so much with visual material alone – Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum are particular treasures in this regard. Much credit must surely be given to her regular cinematographer Agnès Godard, as well as her coterie of performers, such as Denis Levant and Vincent Gallo. Bastards is a lot tighter than her previous films, though. It’s the most conventional thing she’s done since the TV movie U.S. Go Home, an ebullient outlier from 1994. When things get going, it’s like we’re on a TGV, with scenes just whizzing by. The kind of poetic ambiguity that brings a film like Beau Travail to life tends to be inhibited by the discipline a more genre-based approach imposes, however. For most arthouse directors, this is a good thing; aping the style and structure of the classic Western did a lot of good for Denis’ former colleague, Wim Wenders, with Paris, Texas. Not so in this case.
Another issue: Bastards is worryingly lacking in female characters. Laporte’s mistress Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) and Marco’s sister Sandra add up to precisely one decent femme fatale. But they’re undercooked; the latter is shrewish and irritating to watch, the former implausibly passive and vulnerable. The men come out a little better; Denis seems to have a weakness for the old-fashioned noble and gentlemanly type. Think of Sentain’s kindness to his fellow legionnaires in Beau Travail, Lionel in 35 Shots of Rum, or Marco and the kindly Dr. Bethanie in Bastards. But since the villains of this piece are such bastards, and they’re everywhere, this discreet heroism doesn’t seem so much out of time as, perhaps, the only appropriate response. Not that things necessarily work out; the final scene of Bastards is, you won’t be surprised to hear, neither happy nor, strictly speaking, an ending.