Foreign Title: Les salauds
When they first appear onscreen, the characters that populate the lurid world of French sexploitation on display in Claire Denis’s latest film move slowly as if in some sort of dreamy, half-conscious trance.
Placed off-center in the frame, captured from the side and/or in the near-constant darkness that pervades, it’s only when we get a close enough look at the reflection of horror staring through the lens back at us through their haunted eyes that we realize that the official Cannes Film Festival selection is depicting a nightmare rather than a dream.
Moving uneasily from gritty Noir inspired neorealism to Denis's own unique brand of ambient expressionism gives Bastards a structure so confounding and fragmented that it’s a miracle if you’re able to put more than just the very basic of plot threads together during the first act.
Although the emotional terrain it travels immediately pulls you along, ultimately Bastards is a moving yet maddening mess of a movie. All over the place from the very beginning, the narrative meanders so puzzlingly that it seems as though it had been edited together by someone that fed a bunch of footage into their computer and just hit shuffle.
While eventually if you’re able to turn off the part of your brain that demands logic, order, reason and common sense, you might find yourself as (un)easily hypnotized as the film’s main character, overall Bastards places too much emphasis on the wrong character’s point-of-view following a devastating tragedy.
Taking a leave of absence from his position as a sea captain to help his estranged sister (Julie Bataille) recover after her husband’s suicide, Marco (Vincent Lindon) arrives to find not only his sister heavily in debt and nearly bankrupt but his teenage niece (Lola Creton) hospitalized after a brutal sexual assault.
Knowing he must step up to take his brother-in-law’s place, Marco rents an unfurnished apartment in the building where the beautiful wife (Chiara Mastroianni) of the man his sister holds responsible for the daughter’s assault and husband’s death lives.
After spying on the woman and her son, Marco begins an affair with his target’s wife and from there the film begins to unravel into clichéd melodrama long before it pays off on the Greek tragic subtext Denis infused the film with from the start.
While the plural nature of the title has already told us that more than one bastard is to blame for the situation (and deep down, we may have begun suspecting the outcome given some of Marco’s discoveries about his sister’s culpability), absolutely nothing could have prepared us for the devastating realization contained in the graphic finale.
Despite this, while being a sea captain hardly prepares one for revenge, we’re never precisely sure just what Marco was thinking when he moved into the building and began inserting himself into Mastroianni's life.
Whether or not he was hoping to seduce the woman for information (before he predictably fell in love with her) or if he was trying to disrupt her home for revenge, we’ll never know but it doesn’t make for an all that compelling or believable plotline particularly given what the film has in store for Marco in the final act.
Though it would’ve been even drearier and that much harder to watch if Denis had opted to start the story earlier, it nonetheless feels disingenuous to broach the topic of sexual exploitation and forced prostitution of a teenage girl without spending more than a fraction of the time with the poor girl and it’s tragic that as a woman, Denis didn’t want to show us more from her point of view.
Overall, Bastards amounts to a missed opportunity to investigate very important and largely unexplored territory that’s become particularly topical in contemporary France in light of recent sex ring scandals. And it’s doubly depressing to broach the subject via characters who appear to be sleepwalking through the horror.
For while the nightmare environment of the film still hits you right where you live, overall Bastards makes about as much sense as a half-remembered dream.
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