Runtime: 100 minutes
Director Claire Denis is no fan of holding a viewer's hand, and her latest film proves to be no exception. The French auteur's career is filled with films that deliberately keep the audience at a distance. Even when the viewer is given information, it's the sort that tends to raise more questions than it answers. This approach to storytelling can work wonders, as in the outstanding White Material, which parceled out information about its world all the way through its searing, bleak finale. Then there are less satisfying works of Denis' career, like The Intruder, stays so vague for so long that one's interest is fully severed long before the credits roll. As luck would have it, however, Denis new film Bastards is far more in the vein of White Material, peeling back the layers of its plot and world on its way to a brutally unnerving finale built entirely on the implications of intelligently chosen details.
This latest venture has been billed as a revenge-soaked noir, but such a description does a disservice to the film's narrative balancing act. At 100 minutes, Bastards is shorter than some of Denis' best known films, but it's almost more immediately involving, and more briskly paced, even as it follows the director's expected MO. Opening with a disorienting series of silent images, the first few cards dealt go as follows: Sandra (Julie Bataille) is reeling from the abuse her niece (Lola Creton) has suffered at the hands of a group of powerful businessmen. Making matters worse is the fact that said businessmen have gone unpunished by the law. The best she can do is turn to her estranged brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a naval captain who turned his back on the family business of shoe production.
Yet as Marco readjusts to life on land, and starts an affair with his lovely neighbor Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), Bastards avoids diving head first into the thrust of its story. The rich photography coats even daylight scenes in a layer of neo-noir shadow, but much of the first half is simply a character study of Marco and his new paramour. Denis even reigns in her more elliptical techniques, and gives Bastards some of the most straightforward passages of her entire filmography (relatively speaking, that is). In keeping Bastards' heart of darkness at bay, the director is able to give her characters more room to breathe.
Mr. Lindon and Ms. Mastroianni (moreso with the former) spend quite a bit of time with their poker faces on, but each is able to infuse their roles with subtly communicated emotional details. The roster of supporting players, meanwhile, are left more as plot devices, with their faces purposefully limited to one expression. This would be a problem were it not for the quietly effective work from the leads, which demonstrates what an actor can do with simple look of worry, or a barely-perceptible smirk.
These character-driven elements are hardly warm and fuzzy, but they provide just the right amount of investment necessary for the film's last act. Denis' gifts as a writer (along with Jean-Pol Fargeau) and director become clear, as in White Material, when the disparate fragments come together just enough to finally hint at the bigger picture. What separates Bastards from White Material, however, is the narrative's scope and thematic ambition. White Material also centered on few major characters, but it also effortlessly wove in issues of class, sex, race, and modern colonialism. These issues were magnified that film's impact, despite the number of questions that remained unanswered.
Bastards, on the other hand, is concerned entirely with the characters and their immediate connections. Ideas of power, corruption, and class rear their heads, yet their confined to the tightly enclosed setting. It's a story small enough to be applicable in just about any culture. That said, the noir stylings end up overtaking the narrative's potentially far-reaching implications. So even though Bastards may not grab one much beyond the surface, but in Denis' hands its still a quietly powerful surface.
With films like Bastards, Denis asserts herself as one of Michael Haneke's only equals when it comes to depicting emotional horrors with a disturbingly calm tone. Rather than go for blunt shock value, her best films grab you and then linger in the mind, with their implications gnawing at the recesses of your imagination. There's a very good reason why filmmakers like Claire Denis, and why films like Bastards, present their stories in scattered puzzle pieces and leave so much work for the viewer. They know that putting all of those pieces together reveal of facet of humanity that's too difficult to deal with all at once.