Bastards: Cannes Review
Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni star in Claire Denis' puzzle-like drama, premiering in Un Certain Regard, about a man's doomed shot at payback for crimes against his family.
CANNES – Every bit as cold and brutal as its blunt title suggests, Bastards (Les Salauds) is easier to admire than to love. Claire Denis is at the height of her powers in terms of unfaltering control, superb manipulation of mood and masterful use of music by her frequent collaborators Stuart A. Staples and British indie outfit Tindersticks. But while partisans of the director’s elliptical style will find plenty to reinforce their predisposition, others will be distanced by this grim revenge drama, which is both unrelentingly dour and unnecessarily hard to follow.
Leaving aside its fragmented, non-linear structure, the story, scripted by Denis with Jean-Pol Fargeau, is an almost straightforward account of a family destroyed physically, emotionally and economically by a powerful businessman with a taste for unsavory sexual entertainment. It centers on the semi-estranged figure called in to deal with the resulting crisis, who ends up another casualty, exploited from all sides.
A haunting opening sequence cuts from pouring rain to an ambulance removing a body from a Paris apartment block to a teenage girl, bleeding and naked apart from heels, wandering the streets at night in a shellshocked daze. Those images are pieces of a puzzle that Denis is in no rush to assemble.
In the film’s anchoring performance, Vincent Lindon plays Marco, a strong, somber man with an ex-wife and two daughters, whose job as a supertanker captain for the French navy suits his solitary nature. Informed that his brother-in-law Jacques (Laurent Grevill) has committed suicide and his niece Justine (Lola Creton) has been hospitalized in a severely traumatized state, he takes a leave from his post and returns to the city to show support for his embittered sister Sandra (Julie Bataille). In an angry rant to the police, she charges them with responsibility for her husband’s death through their failure to investigate sleazy financier Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor).
Rudimentary information is revealed about the bankruptcy of the family shoe manufacturing business that Sandra ran with Jacques, seemingly kept afloat for a time by loans from Laporte. More alarmingly, a doctor (Alex Descas) at the clinic where Justine is being treated outlines to her uncle the girl’s history of drugs, sexual abuse and mutilation.
Cashing in his life insurance and selling his car and other possessions, Marco takes an apartment in the building where Laporte has stashed longterm mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and their young son (Yann Antoine Bizette). Coolly at first, and then with increasing ardor, Marco and Raphaelle begin an affair, presumably as a step in his revenge plan. But Marco’s guilt over his perceived failings toward his family compromise his judgment, as do his feelings for Raphaelle, causing him to underestimate her inextricable bond to Laporte.
While Bastards has a gloomy allure that never lets up, the opaque handling of the characters and situations becomes something of a chore to decipher. When Denis finally does elucidate it’s with lurid details of the sexual sideshow into which Justine was drawn, the full extent of which is exposed in a sordid video shown at the end. Having fled the clinic, the girl’s outcome -- and her seemingly complicit role in her ordeal -- yields arguably the most unsettling scene.
Had this been directed by a man, it’s not unlikely that charges of misogyny might be hurled at the film. While Lindon’s compelling performance gives his character psychological gravitas, Marco is drawn as a flawed but noble victim. The women, however, are all weak or calculating. Mastroianni’s role is sorely lacking in nuance; Creton’s character is so thickly cloaked in ambiguity that it muffles any possible core of innocence; and Bataille plays Sandra as a self-justifying bitch, exposing her brother to danger while assuming none of the responsibility herself. All that makes this a punishingly dyspeptic drama that offers not a glimmer of redemption.
What elevates it above the material is Denis’ command as a filmmaker. Shooting digitally for the first time with frequent collaborator Agnes Godard, she creates a moody visual canvas full of mesmerizing dark textures, with the brooding techno scoring providing the ideal aural accompaniment.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Creton, Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin, Florence Loiret-Caille, Laurent Grevill
Production companies: Alcatraz Films, Wild Bunch, Arte France Cinema, Pandora Film Produktion
Director: Claire Denis
Screenwriter: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Claire Denis
Producers: Olivier Thery Lapiney, Laurence Clerc, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Music: Stuart A. Staples, Tindersticks
Costume designer: Judy Shrewsbury
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 101 minutes.