One of the unique pleasures of watching a Claire Denis film is leaning in close and paying careful attention. The French filmmaker, who’s directed such modern classics as Beau Travail and 35 Shots Of Rum, has always been admirably allergic to expository dialogue. Revealing crucial information through more offhand means—the tone of a conversation, the meaning of a loaded gesture—Denis puts great trust in her audience to sort out the nature of onscreen relationships. (In the case of something like The Intruder, maybe too much trust.) All of her movies are, in a sense, mysteries, which makes the prospect of Denis helming a literal mystery all the more exciting. Bastards, her latest act of elegant obfuscation, fits that bill nicely. A noirish study in corporate corruption, sexual perversion, and retribution schemes, the film employs an investigator of sorts, whose attempts to untangle the plot mirror the audience’s. What he discovers, sifting through the hardship and trauma that’s afflicted his family, marks this as one of the director’s most pitiless visions—a drama as pitch black as the night that envelops its characters.
From the opening frames, Denis deals in implication. Rather than depict the fatal plummet that kicks the story into motion, she merely suggests it, cutting from a shot of a despondent patriarch (Laurent Grévill) standing near an open window and a subsequent scene of ambulances and police cars parked on the street below. Moments later, Denis presents a suicide letter, but neglects to reveal its contents. Why did the man plunge to his death? And who is the naked woman seen wandering the city in an unresponsive daze? Bastards is captivatingly cryptic, drawing viewers into its web of secrets and concealed horrors. Falling under the film’s dreamlike spell requires patience with fragmented storytelling; Denis, an old pro at chronological manipulation, jumps backward and forward in time, teasing out clues through each nonlinear leap.
Gradually, the impressions of a plot reveal themselves. The dead man, who owned a bankrupt shoe factory, is survived by a wife (Julie Bataille) and a hospitalized daughter (Lola Créton), the latter recovering from some intense sexual trauma. Into this den of grief comes ship captain Marco (Vincent Lindon), the deceased’s absent brother-in-law, returning from self-imposed, maritime exile to sort out this sordid situation. Convinced that a DSK-style mogul (Michel Subor) is to blame for the family’s ruin, Marco moves into the apartment below his enemy’s mistress (Chiara Mastroianni); whether his inevitable romance with the single mother is part of an elaborate revenge plan or a product of genuine desire is another of the film’s many mysteries. As played by Lindon, adopting a mask of weary determination, Marco is a quintessential noir hero—a de facto detective, hard-nosed and handy with his hands, suave when he needs be, and foolhardy enough to believe that his cynicism will shield him from what’s to come.
Working with longtime co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis proves again that her distinctively elliptical style—as poetic as that of any working contemporary—can be successfully applied to just about all genres. (She handles guns, goons, and potential femme fatales as gracefully as she did cannibals, legionaries, and child soldiers.) Her first feature not shot on film, Bastards also promises a fine future for the artist in pixels; she exploits the textures of digital just as seductively as she did the grain of celluloid, thanks to the expert eye of regular cinematographer Agnès Godard. If this grim tale of exploitation falls a little short of the duo’s prior collaborations, it’s only because peeling back its layers of misdirection proves more rewarding than seeing the big picture underneath. Yet, while Bastards is scarcely profound in its critique, aimed at powerful men who take what they want from the world, there’s still a nihilistic kick to its conclusion, which recalls the bracing bleakness of Chinatown. Only in the film’s final moments does Denis reveal the full meaning of her title, in all its damning plurality and inclusiveness.