It may be that I’m rather shoehorning this new Claire Denis film into my themed month. It’s certainly not about filmmakers in a traditional sense, but there’s an element of it that recalls, say, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in dealing with a nasty fringe of exploitational filmmaking, not intended for public consumption.
At some level this new film by French director Claire Denis is an hommage to film noir, that famous Hollywood style of filming crime dramas in the 1940s and 1950s which emphasised the characters’ sexuality just as it muddied its contrasty black-and-white filming with shades of moral grey. Bastards is not filmed in monochrome, but there’s plenty of darkness through which the characters drag themselves, as if hinting at barely-suppressed pools of torment. There’s a crime at its heart, too, but that takes some time to come to light. It also touches on themes familiar from Denis’ other films, a compact yet wonderful body of work of which this is a further facet.
The story focuses on container ship captain Marco (Vincent Lindon), who has jumped ship to come back home to France to deal with some family drama that involves his sister Sandra and her daughter, Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton). Also involved, in a more shadowy way, are financial tycoon Edouard (a basilisk-like and sunken-eyed Michel Subor, channelling shades of Eddie Constantine and Philip Baker Hall by way of Pope Benedict) and his younger wife Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). The film’s structure presents this only elliptically at first, with shots of the various characters — Marco looking out from his ship somewhere in the Middle East, Justine wobbling down a deserted Paris street naked except for her high heels, Sandra dealing angrily with police — that hints at something disturbing having happened (or perhaps happening), but it takes some time before things become more clear. We know fairly early on that with Justine there is a backstory of torture and sexual abuse, so the film’s darkness is primed from the outset, even if this isn’t precisely one of those films of the ‘New French Extremity’ which flourished in the 1990s.
It all seems to be building towards a final reveal, but needless to say it’s nothing that the sly suggestiveness of the narrative structure or the relentlessness of the film’s atmospherics have not already heavily implied. Nevertheless, the final crudely-shot images seem to make this in part a film that comments on the dark heart of filmmaking itself, thereby implicating Denis and her own position as manipulative auteur (director and writer, arch-orchestrator of all this darkness). Still, she’s hardly the sole credit behind the scenes, and she has by this point recruited a very tight core crew of artisans, which include some beautiful (and, surprisingly to me, digital) photography from her long-time DoP Agnès Godard, as well as a controlled soundtrack from another recurring collaborator, the band Tindersticks, whose score focuses on droning, repetitive sounds, ratcheting up the growing tension with insistent ticking noises alternating with pulsating throbbing waves of sound, which reverberate — like the occasional threatening reappearance throughout of car engines — in a good cinema auditorium.
I get the sense from some of the critical reaction I’ve read that this film by Denis underwhelmed many, but I feel that maybe it’s because of the thoroughgoing level of threat that suffuses the film. Maybe also it’s the sense that nobody — not the characters, nor the audience — are expected to get out unscathed. It is the character of Edouard who is called a “bastard” on-screen, and yet the film’s title is in the plural. There’s a small role for Grégoire Colin (so memorable in Beau travail) as a predatory pimp-like character, and he’s certainly a candidate too. But one increasingly gets the sense that the nominal hero Marco may himself be one of the bastards — he’s a man who, like many in Denis’ films, is something of an exile from his society, and here he returns to get involved where (perhaps existentially) he should not be. Moreover, maybe the title even extends to those orchestrating the drama and by implication the audience watching.
Yet while on the one hand it’s a film in which there are a number of powerful predatory men as well as female victims of their desires, it refuses to present its women as merely passive victims. As Justine, Créton in particular has a really inscrutable and unflinching demeanour; her presence was compared by audience members (in the director Q&A after the screening I attended) with a heroine from a Dreyer film (Bresson’s “models” also spring to mind), and that seems about right, in the sense of her seeming to transcend suffering through (an unexpressed) religious grace. It’s a film that spends a lot of its time putting us in the space of these eponymous male characters, so the way the women react becomes something of a surprise, if not a challenge to viewers (Créton’s acting seemed to strike a nerve with one audience member at the Q&A, certainly).
It’s a film with many shades of meaning, that deals with some pretty dark desires, but it’s quite different from the really upfront strain of audience-implicating nastiness that Michael Haneke regularly trades in (or a more recent American film like Compliance, for example). It’s difficult to precisely say, but its effect in the end is as inscrutable as Créton’s face, though there are enough flashes of beauty and mystery amongst the squalid ugliness of the characters and their relationships to keep this film in mind for some time after seeing it. There’s also enough ambiguity in the characters to provoke discussion as to their motives and their respective fates, and at the very least this feels like the proper way to honour the film noir.
Director Claire Denis; Writers Jean-Pol Fargeau and Denis; Cinematographer Agnès Godard; Starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Lola Créton, Michel Subor; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Wednesday 5 February 2014.