On mood and atmosphere alone, Bastards is highly impressive.
No matter what your opinion is on Claire Denis‘ films (full disclosure: I’m not the biggest fan of her work myself), it’s impossible to deny her skills at making one hell of an image. The opening moments of Bastards merely continue to show how strong Denis, and her regular DP Agnès Godard, are at pulling people in. On a rainy night, a man (Laurent Grévill) is seen standing near an open window. Somewhere else, also at night but without any rain (one of many instances of screwing around with chronology in the film), a young woman (Lola Créton) is walking around the streets completely naked save for the high heels she’s wearing. The next scene, which shows paramedics covering up a body on the street, implies that the man in the first scene jumped to his death. How these two events link together is where Bastards starts.
The naked girl turns out to be the daughter of the man who killed himself. Marco (Vincent Lindon), the man’s brother-in-law, leaves his job and life on the seas as a captain to help deal with the situation. Marco’s sister (Julie Bataille) places the blame squarely on Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a wealthy financial figure who might have had a hand in the failure of the dead man’s business. Marco moves into an empty apartment below Laporte, presumably on some sort of mission for vengeance, and begins an affair with Laporte’s wife (Chiara Mastroianni). As Marco’s affair intensifies, and he investigates further into the relationship between Laporte and his brother-in-law, he starts discovering some dark and disturbing information.
Questions will run through the minds of anyone watching Bastards. Does Marco have real feelings for Laporte’s spouse, or is it just part of his plan? What exactly was the business relationship between Laporte and Marco’s family? What exactly happened to Marco’s niece? Bastards exists in a world where everything seems to be undefined or barely explained, leaving viewers to fill in the majority of the blanks. My assumption that Mastroianni is Laporte’s wife is only because they live together and have a child. It could be a long term relationship, or she could be a mistress of Laporte for all I know. Knowledge is hard to really obtain in Bastards, but it’s seemingly for the best. Every time something is suggested or divulged it implies a darker, more hideous truth barely lying underneath.
That feeling of dread and darkness permeates throughout, and Denis’ ability to evoke these emotions are masterful at times. Shortly after Marco helps Laporte’s son with his broken bicycle, there’s a random cutaway while Marco lies in bed: A distraught Mastroianni, walking around a forest with police until she comes upon her son’s bike. Could it be a flash forward, a hint of what’s to come, or just a fleeting thought in Marco’s mind? The scene is never touched upon again, but it certainly helps set a mood of pure discomfort. Plenty of moments in Bastards play out like this. An innocuous moment, like Laporte sitting with his son in a car, is shot by Denis in a way that suggests something far worse is going on. The fact that almost all of these scenes are never mentioned again only makes their implications far more disturbing.
As much as I enjoy Denis’ style in Bastards, it doesn’t work entirely. A subplot involving Créton and two other characters (Denis regulars Grégoire Colin and Florence Loiret Caille) gets obscure to the point of frustration. While other people thoroughly enjoy Denis’ elliptical approach, I’ve found that it can sometimes muddle an apparently simple piece of narrative information. The film’s conclusion also feels abrupt to the point of sucking out all of the dramatic weight from it. A major decision by one character is done in such a rushed, hasty manner that it loses much of its impact. That hastiness is thankfully made up for with the film’s final shocking scene (which, in a touch of some pitch black humour, is set to Tindersticks singing “Put your love in me”). Unlike the other Denis films I’ve seen, my issues with the narrative were thankfully much smaller than usual. On mood and atmosphere alone, Bastards is highly impressive and one of Denis’ strongest works.