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Bastards (2013 Cannes review)

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<i>Bastards</i> (2013 Cannes review)

Filmmaker Claire Denis didn’t name her new movie Bastards glibly. It’s hard to remember a film in recent times that’s been populated with so many disreputable, miserable or simply unpleasant characters. You’ll never quite warm up to any of them, but if you get on this neo-noir’s wavelength, you may find yourself loving them anyway. They’re bastards, all right, but they’re bastards through and through.

Filmmaker Claire Denis didn’t name her new movie Bastards glibly. It’s hard to remember a film in recent times that’s been populated with so many disreputable, miserable or simply unpleasant characters. You’ll never quite warm up to any of them, but if you get on this neo-noir’s wavelength, you may find yourself loving them anyway. They’re bastards, all right, but they’re bastards through and through.

Recalling her 2004 movie The Intruder, Bastards once again finds Denis (White Material, 35 Shots of Rum) playing around with chronology, not always necessarily helping us figure out what’s past and what’s present. What is clear is that Marco (Vincent Lindon), a grizzled ship captain, has been called home by his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille). Within a close span of time, her husband has committed suicide and her daughter Justine (Lola Créton) has landed in the hospital after a brutal sexual encounter. Sandra believes the culprit behind both tragedies is Edouard Laporte (The Intruder’s Michel Subor), a wealthy businessman who had dealings with her husband over the years, helping to keep the husband’s business afloat until, for some reason, Laporte stopped.

Sandra wants Marco to get vengeance, which sets in motion a most unconventional revenge plot. Marco doesn’t buy a gun and kill this man. Instead, he insinuates himself into his life through the businessman’s lover Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), with whom he starts having an affair.

Working as usual with a fantastically sensual, almost electronic score by Tindersticks, Denis has crafted a noir that’s filled with the sorts of characters that usually pop up in such a film: There are no real heroes, just different shades of culpable. (Marco is perhaps the most “innocent” of this group, but he has his share of problems as well.) A nihilistic streak cuts very deeply across this movie and doesn’t feel like mere posturing. To be sure, Denis can make beautiful reflections on decency and compassion like 35 Shots of Rum, but within her also stirs the spiked gloom of Bastards.

The acting helps sell that gloom. With sad eyes and a tough exterior, Lindon makes Marco’s quest seem both grandly fatalistic and also impossibly cool. He and Raphaëlle aren’t so much lovers as they are intertwined wrecks, and Mastroianni easily sells her character’s doomed beauty. Throughout, what Denis does in Bastards so fiendishly—and rather bravely—is not to try to redeem any of these lost souls. Most of them remain lost even to the end, but the actors bring an integrity to their characters’ wretchedness.

Because Bastards doesn’t tell its story in a straight line, it can sometimes have a dreamlike quality, different time periods intermixing with an intuitive logic that’s appropriate for characters still trapped in the past. I’d also suggest that some of the flashbacks may not be literal but, rather, the imagination of those events by others—and therefore more lurid and surreal as a consequence. Frankly, it’s all in keeping with a movie in which we’re not always sure of what we’re seeing or in whom to trust. Everything in Bastards is viewed through the rotting unhappiness of those in the film, as kinky sex, resentment and bloodshed ooze from its pores. Don’t be afraid of the darkness, though: Denis makes it seductive.

Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Créton
Release Date: Screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

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