If all art is only ever about sex and death, Claire Denis’ Un Certain Regard film “The Bastards” may be the most “artistic” one we’ve seen in Cannes to date, as it rolls around positively shamelessly in the musk of both. Or it may be a grubby little exercise in exploitation, depending on who you talk to. Whichever magnetic pole your opinion is drawn to (and it seems likely even this early on that very few of the responses to the film will share our relative middle ground — it’s a film that has so far not so much divided as cleaved), what’s for certain is that while in its elliptical, fragmentary, non-linear storytelling it bears the hallmarks of a Claire Denis film, in it the filmmaker strays into territory we’d never normally have associated her with, with peculiar and deeply unsettling effect. Fans of her dreamier, long-take, composed photography will be shocked by the choppy, disorienting close-ups we get here (slow opening scene aside), while those expecting any hint of her recurring post-colonialist themes and extraordinary sense of place will be disappointed by a film that eschews all wider politics and geography in favor of an almost generic psycho-sexual thriller plot, which of course ends up anything but generic in Denis’ hands.
The film opens with impressionistic glimpses, in that slow-slow-quick-quick-slow rhythm we’re used to from Denis, of what we later piece together is the suicide of Jacques, father of Justine (Lola Creton, from “Something in the Air”) and husband to bitter, recriminatory Sandra (Julie Bataille). Sandra’s brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), who was formerly very close to Jacques, leaves the tanker on which he was captain and returns to exact revenge on the people he believes responsible for Justine’s horrific sexual abuse, and therefore her self-harm and ultimately her father’s suicide. Part of his plan involves moving into the apartment above the ringleader, successful business Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), where he strikes up an intense sexual relationship with Laporte’s girlfriend, and the mother of his son, Joseph. To go any further would be to risk major spoilers for what happens later on, (or rather for the sense that later can be made of it all), but suffice to say there are revelations and car crashes and guns and a lot more sex and death, along with what are probably the most sinister corn cobs ever committed to film.
Of course, there’s a bit more going on here than the “Taken”-esque plotline we’ve outlined above, with Denis levering some of the film’s familial dynamics into a fairly damning critique of fathers, absent and present, and fatherhood, real and figurative — Marco not only takes over as provider and protector of the institutionalized Justine and her mother, but is clearly at least mentally casting himself in that role to little Joseph, in part to save the child and his mother from the pernicious influence of the sexually depraved Laporte. In fact, men in general, the “bastards” of the title, do not come out of this at all well with only Marco coming across as morally redeemable, and even then, as his sister snarls at him, “You. Weren’t. There”: he is to blame for his absence from their lives. And it’s not just Sandra’s self-pitying bitterness talking either, there is a sense that Marco, all those years ago, “ran away” from these people, and that returning to clear up the mess made in his absence is almost his admission of guilt.
But the women are shrewish, or weak and sexually manipulated too, meaning the film has more of a misanthropic than a misandrist slant, and that’s before we even take on the troubling suggestion that a certain victim may have been complicit in her own violation. Ultimately, the incredibly steep downward trajectory of the storyline and the increasingly seedy revelations that mean our various sympathies for the various characters, one by one, drop like flies, leaving a film that, in contrast to the sometimes truthful despair of other Denis outings, instead feels a little like empty nihilism.
“The Bastards” is a strange and certainly not wholly successful hybrid — there are tones and textures that remind us of everything from Refn (perhaps it’s the blue lighting and the initially spartan synth score that later thrums into an insistent Tindersticks track that plays over the whole end portion), to Jean Luc-Godard, while the couple who run the “sex den” feel like characters straight out of a David Lynch movie, and some of the thriller-ish, generic elements feel ever so slightly, well, Adrian Lyne at times. And very few of the above are names we ever expected to reference in a Claire Denis review.
Ultimately, if you’ve the stomach for its more seedy aspects, what still separates this film in terms of quality from Denis’ best work is that once you’ve pieced together the puzzle-box structure, there remains little else to chew on. So you complete the intellectual challenge and satisfy yourself that you understand the chronology of events and the motivations of the various characters to the extent that you’re supposed to, and after that, all is pretty much silence. When other films of hers, from “35 Shots of Rum” to “Beau Travail” to “White Material,” have mood that sustains long after the they end, even now, not a great deal of “The Bastards” really lingers with us, besides a mild aversion to corncobs. We’re not in the “ban this sick filth” brigade, but from such a usually nuanced and thought-provoking auteur, it’s hard not to see the film as a minor entry. “The Bastards” feels like what happens when an undeniably great filmmaker stoops to sensationalism — it’s a smarter, odder film than someone else would make with the same material, but it’s still smart, odd sensationalism. [B-]