What a better film to mount a comeback to than one of the bleakest, coldest films I’ve seen in a long time! I generally love Claire Denis’ films – Trouble Every Day is in my top films of all time, so I thought I was ready for some delightful Denis brutalism. I wasn’t exactly prepared, it turns out.
(From here on out, be prepared for spoilers)
Vincent Lindon stars as a Marco, man whose brother-in-law, as close to him as a blood brother, commits suicide, and he takes leave from his solitary life as a ship captain in the Navy to help his sister. Not only is his brother-in-law dead, but his niece, his sister’s daughter, has been found wandering naked in the streets of Paris with her wrists slit. Marco theoretically comes to put the pieces back together, but he soon finds himself embroiled, with his emotionally unstable sister (Julie Bataille) in a plot for revenge against Edouard Laporte, the man both see as responsible, through his business dealings, for their loved one’s death. Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) becomes an unwitting player in the revenge plot as Edouard’s trophy wife, who Marco quickly seduced once he moves into their building. From there, no one, including Edouard and Raphaelle’s son, is left untouched.
While this might seem like an awful lot of plot, it’s revealed slow as molasses. The film begins with intercutting scenes of the suicide crime scene, juxtaposed with Justine’s naked walk down the street. I appreciate this style of story-telling; in fact, when some major plot points come together in the final 15 minutes of the movie, it’s like watching a beautiful, terrible puzzle being finished (although I’d expect nothing less from Denis).
Now, on to those twists. The film surprises twofold in the last few minutes: first, when given the choice between killing her lover Marco and killing her husband, who has taken away her child, Raphaelle chooses to kill Marco, in what was honestly a very surprising turn of events. The willingness (or unwillingness) of a mother to protect her child is a main theme here, and it turns out that Raphaelle was willing to kill a man who may have truly cared for her in order to maintain her status quo life with her son. If Raphaelle had shot her husband, it would have been a totally expected change of heart, but also incredibly satisfying for the audience. Denis denies us both the pleasure of righteousness and that of predictability, and it’s really masterful.
On the other hand, there’s the second twist, which caused a minor uproar at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (I remember hearing that there is some rough stuff that happens in the film, but thankfully didn’t remember the details.) It turns out Justine was being pimped out by her father to Edouard! Probably for some buisness favors! And not only that, but Justine was also raped by her father on camera with a decorative corn cob! This, I did not care for. I’m actually surprised that Denis, a strong feminist filmmaker, went this route. It seems like a cheap shock; perhaps Denis is making an ill-advised statement that we’re all violated by capitalism and patriarchy? But I really didn’t need to see that point made visual with corn, especially after a doctor describes the brutalized state of Justine’s vagina in an earlier scene. There was nothing in the film that seemed to suggest that Justine’s parents – particularly her mother, who seems to have known about the entire thing – would do this to her; but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. The most desperate measures, apparently. (NB: A friend informed me that Denis remarked that the end of this film is a response to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a book I have not read – but was also the premise for The Story of Temple Drake. I sense a revisitation to these themes soon!)
That’s one of the things that bothered me most about the film – the judgements come down very hard on the mother characters. Justine’s mother at least helps to pimps her daughter out to ensure her family’s business stays afloat, but it literally costs her everything. Raphaelle is shown to be a bourgeoisie housewife who would rather keep her family intact than face what her husband has done. No one in the film comes out smelling like roses, to be certain, but it’s the mothers who have to live with the consequences, while everyone else is dead or gets away with it. But maybe that’s exactly the point – capitalism has changed our ideas of the family (and of right and wrong) that these captains of industry no longer feel responsible for the effects that their actions have on the family unit.
I was much colder on this film before I had a pleasant conversation on Twitter with some cinephile pals. Perhaps instead of a character study, it’s more useful to view the film as a dissection of the film noir, a genre associated with the tough man (Marco) and the femme fatale (Raphaelle? Justine? Both?). This is what choices made in film noir would look like in our times. While the irony didn’t always work for me – Marco is a near-saint, risking everything for a revenge plot that comes to absolutely nothing, in order to avenge a truly terrible man – I appreciate the sentiment, and the craft. Bastards is a searing indictment of capitalism and patriarchy, to be sure, but it never involved me on an emotional level, past gut-level shock. Perhaps that’s the point.