I watched Bastards twice when it came to the UK in early 2014. I even introduced the film for an audience but I knew that I needed to see it again at a later date and when it appeared on MUBI this month I watched it again. Some films by Claire Denis make, for me, an instant impact (Beau Travail, 35 rhums). But Bastards is more like L’intrus in demanding long retrospection. My notes from 2014 reveal that I wasn’t sure whether Bastards was a film or an installation – a work of art, a dissection of genre, mood, style, ideology and much more. But I’d done my homework, I knew where the ideas came from and now I think I see how they come together.
In the film’s Press Pack, Denis tells us that she needed to find a story idea quickly to exploit a production opportunity that suddenly arose. Whereas in 35 rhums she turned to Ozu to help her tell a personal family story, in this case she turned to Kurosawa and his noirish take on Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Kurosawa’s tale of a man (Mifune Toshiro), who marries an industrialist’s daughter as part of a strategy to avenge his father’s suicide, provided her with a protagonist, an outline story and a title (the Kurosawa film was titled Les salauds se portent bien in France). But Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau needed another character as well:
In the film, all seems normal, everyone has a family, children are collected from school, they are given afternoon snacks – even the divorced couple manages to handle their relationship pretty well. But there’s the young woman. She’s from another state of the world.
She comes from another character who has always been with me: Temple, the female character in William Faulkner’s [1931 novel] Sanctuary. When I was myself an adolescent, that book transformed me. I wasn’t frightened at all, on the contrary, the last chapter between father and daughter in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris gave me a rush, and a certainty that girls must deal with their sexual misfortunes by themselves. Temple takes out her compact and looks at herself. (Claire Denis interviewed in the Press Notes)
I confess that I tried to read Sanctuary but struggled to finish it. But I can see how Denis used the ‘Temple’ character in her script. Let me try to outline Bastards without spoiling the narrative. The brilliant Vincent Lindon (up there with the very best in global cinema) is Marco Silvestri, a ship’s captain on an oil tanker who is forced to abandon his ship in an unnamed port and head home for Paris where he finds disaster has struck the family of his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) and brother-in-law, his buddy from training school. His next action is to investigate what or who is behind the tragedy that he finds on arrival. The camerawork and editing by Denis regular Agnès Godard and new recruit to the Denis team, Annette Dutertre presents the ellipses in the script so the timing is not clear, but we see Marco moving into an apartment where one of his neighbours is Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) with her young son. Only later do we realise that Raphaëlle is the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) and that Marco has identified Laporte as the cause of the collapse of the Silvestri family shoe factory business. A telling line of dialogue in these opening scenes comes from the nephew of the concièrge of the apartments who when challenged by Raphaëlle explains that he is filling in for his aunt – “It’s normal, it’s family business”. Marco is about to threaten one family, unaware of some of the secrets within his own family. But later we we will understand that he had withdrawn from the family business to go to sea and that his own marriage has ended with his two daughters living with their mother. This is certainly a film noir and a very dark and very disturbing noir, something emphasised by shot compositions and Stuart Staples’ music. The ‘Temple’ character is Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) who he finds in a psychiatric hospital. What has put her there?
For a production put together quickly, Bastards is a complex work, finely detailed with numerous clues and narrative links that don’t immediately register. It helps that most of the cast and creative collaborators like Godard and Staples are Denis regulars. Alongside Michel Subor we get to see Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin as familiar Denis performers. Vincent Lindon was the protagonist of Vendredi Soir (France 2002) and Nicole Dogué from 35 rhums has a minor role as a Police Inspector. The three central women in the story are all Denis first timers and she said that she wanted them to be dark-haired ‘Mediterranean types’. They are all very good and very much part of the noir narrative. Bastards is a brutal film – ‘dangerous’ or even ‘deranged’ as one blogger has put it – and misogyny is suggested by the presence of a ‘Temple’ character. However, as is usual with Denis, the women are not passive victims, even when violence of different sorts is directed towards them. Nor are they simply ‘good’. The men are wretched and all tainted in some way but the women are also implicated or even directly involved. Which one is the femme fatale? Perhaps they all are?
I’ve read a number of reviews of the film and interviews with Claire Denis. One of the best is on the cinema scope online website by Jose Teodoro. He suggests something that I also experienced. On a first viewing the film sees dreamlike and floating. The one or two short sequences that might be dreams or flashbacks are disorientating. The ellipses confuse the sense of a narrative drive. But on later viewings we realise that the story-line has a strong narrative drive. As Denis explain, we only gain an insight into the narrative data as Marco himself discovers things. Marco is the key character and he defines the noir narrative as much as the formal elements of cinematography, mise en scène and music. Teodoro suggests he is like a Robert Ryan figure who might be in a film noir or a Western. That’s a good call I think. Bastards made me think of a 1950s film noir, something as cold and brutal as The Big Combo (1955) or neo-noirs based on the novels of Jim Thompson. Vincent Lindon’s star persona is ideal. He looks like the hard man who could sort out any mess, but there is both an ‘ordinariness’ and ‘working stiff’ quality that makes him vulnerable. In Bastards, he has all the accoutrements, including a vintage Alfa-Romeo and a taste in expensive shorts but he is also flawed. There is a strong erotic spark between him and Chiara Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle but Marco is also the most naïve character and we know that he is the doomed man of the noir.
I’m so pleased that I watched Bastards again. I realise I saw things much more clearly this time. Significantly, perhaps, I remembered most scenes but I’d repressed the detail of the harrowing closing scenes. How did I feel at the end? The film is so dark that I might have despaired but it is so beautifully crafted and intelligent that somehow I felt uplifted by a beautiful work of art. That’s Claire Denis for you. I know many people don’t get her films, but for me they define what cinema can be. One final point, the film was shot digitally which both created problems with lighting but also allowed more flexibility. In interviews Denis explains this in some detail.
The Toronto festival trailer: