Paris has been many things on film. For many years, its defining characteristic was the carefree abandon of the cobbled streets; the chic zip of adventure as Audrey Hepburn or Jean Seberg or Matt Damon race around beneath the iconic landmarks in small cars.
The darkness, though, holds a blacker night than most cinematic cities, and the only film that may outstrip the despair bleeding from the walls in Bastards is the nihilistic crunch of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. If you’ve witnessed Noe’s trip backwards out of the hellhole of crunching vengeance, that comparison should say something about the depths to which Claire Denis’ latest chronicle of human demonism plumbs — if the deluge of rain cascading down the dank walls as the film opens isn’t enough of a hint.
There’s a tinge of surrealism in the ghostly portmanteau of this first sequence, as an ambulance attends to a dead body and a young naked woman wanders the street. She is Justine (Lola Creton); the body is her father, the owner of a shoe factory. His wife Sandra (Julie Bataille), convinced that his suicide was caused by one of their creditors Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), calls her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon) to investigate. Marco is robust in his silence, but like many a detective before him, the presence of innocent young girls in the tale seems to get under his skin.
A sailor who has lived most of his adult life estranged from his family, Marco is not a hero and he does not escape the cursive eye of Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, who imagine their characters with only the faintest traces of humanity. Bastards is a barbed, jagged film noir where all motivation is selfish and nihilistic.
Marco’s main motivation, for example, appears to be his sex drive; he quickly seduces Laporte’s suspicious trophy wife Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), whose young son becomes an object in whatever mysterious game plays out on this wiry chessboard. Denis eroticises the adult interaction with a gauzy lens, her alert camera capturing the horny frissons between the pair as a montage of body parts, the camera almost panting with Raphaëlle’s lust. There’s an almost forensic detail to the depiction of sensuality; Raphaëlle lays out Marco’s discarded shirt and clings to his imagined body, burying her nose in the damp creases. Mastroianni, whose tousled hair presents her at her most effortlessly sexy, gives Raphaëlle the aura of a femme fatale without the power of a scheming mind.
Denis complements the dark glow of sensuality with a menacing, macabre observational theme, keeping her camera close to the characters as the spaces around them feel overwhelmingly devoid of humanity. Laporte’s refined apartment feels as empty as Marco’s physically bare one, reflecting the servile way he treats Raphaëlle. People in Bastards are reduced to objects, particularly the female characters. Knowing Denis, and recognising the morbid style of her filmmaking, this is not a model for society but a symptom of it — a desperate cry against a world that allows such inhumane things to occur. A mountain of high heels lingered upon at one point symbolises what Denis imagines women as a group have been reduced to.
Frequent collaborators Tindersticks yet again provide the musical score, an eerie, reverberating collection of sparse, irrrthymic notes that underscore the faltering heartbeat of the society. It’s easy to see why Denis returns to the British electronic outfit, as they so effortlessly match her dark, jagged view of the world. Such nihilism could border on gratuitous, and Denis’ often inscrutable approach leaves an audience without a firm narrative hook to pull them through. A Denis viewer must be dedicated to immersing themselves in the unique intricacies of her work.
In Bastards, the visual darkness of the settings and how they’re filmed makes for an even more confrontational match than usual; at least in her last work White Material, the wounded howl of the filmmaking was cautiously alleviated by the light and space of the locations. Watching Bastards is somewhat akin to being blindfolded. Glimpses of light are fleetingly glimpsed at the edges, and the sense of panic increases the longer the sensory deprivation is forced upon you. Bastards is elliptical, nonsensical, but undeniable as long as your vision isn’t entirely clear. Denis’ sharp visual eye makes for a film experienced through the senses rather than the power of thought. From the title itself, the tone of the film is evident, but rarely has such definitiveness been reinforced so strongly through image.
Curzon’s first issue of Bastards only comes with the film trailer and a 20 minute piece containing test footage from the pre-production process. Denis’ sober voiceover explains the lack of extras: “Making extras for the DVD is… It’s quite difficult for me, because I don’t have the materials. You’d also need to allow the filming process to be filmed.” All she can offer, then, is this test footage, with her commentary making for a reduced edition of a feature commentary as she discusses the casting process and the visual development of the film. Essentially, it offers all the value of a full-length commentary in a fraction of the time, and Denis’ direct input is a fascinating insight into an often inscrutable filmmaker.