Night. It’s raining. A man paces around his balcony. A body lies covered behind a police line. Somewhere else, a young girl wanders the streets, naked and dazed. You would be excused for thinking you’ve missed the set-up here, or some key piece of expositional dialogue. Welcome to the world of Claire Denis’s BASTARDS.
Denis’s last feature, 2009’s WHITE MATERIAL, starred Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation under siege in a volatile African country engulfed in civil war. An inventive, unpredictable postcolonial thriller, the film took familiar genre elements into unchartered territory.
Genre expectations are again unsettled from the beginning of BASTARDS. There are elements of neo-noir, in particular the undercurrents of corruption, sexual abuse and power that drive Polanski’s seminal CHINATOWN (1974). Denis herself has cited Akira Kurosawa’s bitter corporate revenge tragedy THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960) as inspiration. And then there are literary cues, from Greek tragedy to 20th-century fiction, most notably William Faulkner’s controversial 1931 breakthrough Sanctuary. Anyone familiar with that novel will know to brace themselves at the sight of corncobs in BASTARDS.
But being thrown into the midst of this grimy, fragmented noir is a deliberately disorientating experience. Flash-forwards seem at first like terrible premonitions of what’s to come. We soon realise these sequences are the inevitable conclusion of the ominous events unfolding before us. It’s just a matter of time before we form the connections that will take us there.
Leading us into the dark heart of the mystery is Vincent Lindon’s ship captain, Marco. Marco is back on dry land for the sole purpose of aiding his family in their time of dire need. He sets out on a path of vengeance against the perpetrators behind the horrific sexual abuse of his niece, the consequences of which appear to have resulted in the suicide of his brother-in-law.
The culprit is, according to Marco’s sister, a creepy financier (a chillingly authoritative Michel Subor) who keeps his mistress, Chiara Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle, in an apartment with their young son. Marco moves into the apartment upstairs and quickly seduces the enigmatic Raphaëlle. It’s his first step on a dangerous journey of retribution.
Bastards abound throughout the story, both literal and metaphorical, from Raphaëlle’s illegitimate son to Marco himself – ostensibly our hero, but a hero who, as in all the best noirs, is damned from the off.
The narrative is released in impressionistic chunks, some of which are so shrouded in shadows that you’ll pounce on every drop of light that sneaks into the frame. Denis’s regular director of photography Agnès Godard immerses everything in the darkness of the Parisian night, from the white flesh of an erotic stairwell tryst to a remarkably ominous sequence involving a car driving headlong into the void.
Mood, character and elliptical jumps in time and place are given centre stage, whilst plot exposition takes a backseat. The overall effect is similar to recalling a disturbing nightmare: half-remembered moments of menace that may be leading you to a truth you dare not face.