Claire Denis' films are typically intimate dramas weighted with emotion, which makes it particularly dispiriting that "Bastards," her eleventh feature, contains all of those ingredients without sufficiently making them gel. A muddled revenge drama about family ties and traumatic experiences, the movie wallows in its characters' anger and frustrations, but despite a strong cast and shadowy mysteries that deepen the plot, "Bastards" creates the sour impression of a half-formed work.
That's partly due to a consciously fragmented structure devoid of purpose. The movie contains a confusing trajectory in spite of its relatively simple premise. In a dreary opening sequence, Denis reveals the aftermath of a man's suicide while his nude daughter Justine (Lola Créton) wanders the darkened Paris streets wearing only high heels, apparently abused by an unidentified assailant. Needless to say, that sudden double blow leaves Lola's mother, Sandra (Julie Bataille) in a state of intense bereavement. Incapable of pulling herself together, she calls her brother, Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sailor who leaves his post for Paris immediately. Once there, he discovers the apparent root cause of his relatives' woes -- a shady middle aged loan shark named Edouard (Michel Subor) who caused the family to go bankrupt.
While nothing is stated outright, the vengeful Marco's next steps imply that he has come up with a scheme to put Edouard in his place. The details are simple enough, more or less involving a decision to move into the apartment of Edouard's lover Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and seduce her. Though we don't know exactly how he hopes the plan will work out, it goes awry when he falls in love with her. Most viewers will see that one coming (if they can follow the developments this far) and wonder how Marco could be so gullible. Most likely he didn't think it through; based on the confounding process by which Denis follows each development, she didn't either.
Each strand of the narrative comes together with a dry inevitability that works against several of the impressive ingredients found here that continue to distinguish Denis' work. Individual scenes, particularly the eerie opening and several tragic complications later on, maintain a certain grim intensity consistent that Denis maintains with a combination of stillness and layered performances weighted with implications. Lindon does a fine job as the menacing silent type, his scowl lending him the conflicting ingredients of a western anti-hero.
Subor is a calculated villain, the depth of his evil made only fully apparent in the shocking finale (needless to say, you'll never look at corn on the cob the same way again). Yet the rest of the cast is mercilessly wasted: Créton barely mutters a word, mainly doing her best to look victimized, while Mastroianni is simply a pouty wreck and Bataille barely appears in more than a handful of scenes. Yet nobody truly receives sufficient screen time, because Denis constantly juggles the chronology of events when not abruptly shifting between Marco's scenes with Raphaelle and the hospitalized Justine confronting the impact that sexual abuse has had on her.
The story gets thorny but not particularly thick. While Denis tosses in new events that complicate the relentlessly bleak situation (a gunshot here, a car crash there), nothing manages to deepen our understanding of the characters or make them worth caring for. Bogged down by flashbacks and flash forwards, "Bastards" creates a distancing effect from the tangible sadness at its core. Knowing that it's there, lurking just beneath the formalist trickery, makes its failings particularly unfortunate. The result is the rare case of a movie that confirms its maker's skill while wasting it on useless ambition.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films releases "Bastards" in New York and on VOD today. Some critical support on the festival circuit coupled with Denis' arthouse cred should help it perform decently over the weekend, while the genre hook may yield satisfactory results on VOD, though it's unlikely to reach the same level of visibility that Denis' last few films have accrued.
A version of this review ran during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.