Revered director Claire Denis brings to the Croisette easily one of her least-accessible jaunts yet with the impenetrable Bastards, an ill-organized revenge tale that unfolds in needlessly incoherent fashion, and despite a rather salacious, sexy premise, fails to get the pulse racing in all other departments.
Marco (Vincent Lindon) is one half of the film’s beguiling sibling equation, a man who learns that his brother in law, Jacques (Laurent Grevill) has taken his own life, while niece Justine (Lola Creton) has been taken to hospital after suffering from severe mental trauma. In an attempt to make amends with his estranged sister Sandra (Julie Bataille), Marco moves into the same apartment block as the shady businessman she believes caused Jacques’ suicide, and embarks on an affair with his mistress, Raphalle (Chiara Mastroianni).
The full transfixing extent of Denis’ film was made most abundantly clear at the conclusion of the Cannes premiere screening this afternoon, when a patron was overheard believing that the plot was about incest, given that actresses Bataille and Mastroianni are so similar in both physical appearance and dress (likely an intentional, Lynchian flourish by Denis). This, however, is just the start; Bastards fires off in a multitude of directions, trying to juggle a collective of story strands simultaneously though handling none of them efficiently, resulting in a thick air of pompous narrative vagary that simply proves confusing.
Compounding the scripting issues is a severe deficiency of emotional involvement throughout; though the film is packed with unlikeable and suspicious characters we aren’t necessarily supposed to warm to, the film is disconnected at the most basic emotional level, making us feel nothing even when the life of a young boy ends up seeming to be at risk. One also can’t let go of the fact that Denis employed an actress of Creton’s caliber – she was simply sublime in the recent Goodbye First Love – and elected to do almost nothing with her; the main extent of her contribution is stumbling around the streets in the nude, except for a pair of high heels, of course.
On the plus side, Denis does build some palpable suspense through the famous notion of Chekhov’s gun; Marco brandishes a gat from fairly early on in the film, though it is only made use of late in the game, keeping viewers on tenterhooks throughout. A moody score – specifically the pulsing contributions by the band Tindersticks at the film’s end sequence – tries hard to pump energy and feeling into the proceedings, though will typically result in an appreciation for merely the film’s auditory qualities. Denis also milks a sure erotic appeal out of the film’s numerous sex scenes.
Though murkily lensed and self-consciously sombre, Denis’ latest fails most in the narrative department, failing to muster much intrigue. Aside from a handful of haunting images – most notably a wrecked car being removed from a crash site – this wretched tale of familial crisis is not one that will stick with you for long.
The Upside: Performances are strong across the board; the Tindersticks’ contribution to the score is fantastic; some visuals throughout are undeniably alluring
The Downside: Denis doesn’t have a firm grip on either her narrative or her style; difficult to become immersed in and much easier to simply be confused by
On the Side: This is Denis’ first effort shot digitally, alongside regular DP Agnes Godard.