Claire Denis’ follow up to 2009’s White Material is a gritty film-noir about a Parisian sex ring entitled Bastards. The French title Les Saluds is certainly more poetic, but the film is anything but. As in her previous productions, Denis remains an unsympathetic provocateur.
Bastards opens with Navy officer Metro leaving his ship to fix a family problem in Paris. Though usually absent in such matters, necessity calls for his presence. His sister Sandra is bereaved after the suicide of her husband, and recently bankrupt due to the family owned shoe company. To top it off, her daughter Justine is also missing. In the temporary lodgings, Marco encounters wealthy single mother Raphaëlle as his neighbor. After some playful flirtation, the two begin an affair. All is passionate pleasure until Marco discovers a stirring connection between Justine, his step-brother, and Raphaëlle’s ex-husband Edouad Laporte.
The European – especially French – film does not conform to Hollywood convention. Denis does not only believe in this maxim, but appears to radically confirm it. Yet, like previous production White Material, the obscure narrative in Bastards exists within an established genre. The term ‘neo’ is usually applied to these reimagined products. Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There is a good example of this, while Soderbergh’s The Good German results in the opposite. Denis does not construct a contemporary update, though. Rather Bastards carries the grit and grime of classic film-noir thrillers without the cliches; and typical of the woman behind the camera, conclusions are bleak.
Vincent Lindon, who starred in Denis’ Friday Night, and Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Devenue, compose the illicit love affair in Bastards. In accord with the director’s replica of the genre, the stars appropriately fulfill the ‘tough guy’ and ‘femme fatale’ archetypes. Lindon is smooth until troubling developments release thuggish behavior. Mastroianni speaks with sensuous allure that turns sinister when least expected. Bastards certainly benefits from the grim portrait these two bring to the screen.
Supporting the leads are Julie Bataille (Sandra), Michel Subor (Laporte), and Lola Creton (Justine). A lesser film would find supporting characters with much smaller screen time. In Bastards, thanks to the eccentric style of Denis, these figures revolve in the same disturbing world as Marco and Raphaëlle. Bataille and Subor adequately represent opposite sides of a disturbing spectrum that, unfortunately, connect. Creton, stuck between these two opposing forces, effectively oscillates in sentiment and action.
Despite the effusive praise, Bastards is not a perfect film. Denis relies wholeheartedly on the idea viewers are endowed with equal intelligence as her – if not more. The congestion that only unravels during the finale of the film will undoubtedly turn away viewers. Inversely, this is why Denis deserves such acclaim. Her films are not only gracefully intricate, but demand active attention. Each scene is emphatically integral to the plot – a sign of erudite cinema. Though Ms. Denis may be overwhelmingly provocative and complex, her films undoubtedly push the medium.