Call Judge P.S. Colbert a "bastard," and his biological father will kick your butt.
"But for me, cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation, for me cinema is montage, is editing."—Director Claire Denis
Bastards opens on a dark, Parisian night sky with a torrential rain down pouring. A spare, haunting keyboard line conjures moods of despair and resignation—perfectly fitting for the suicide that sets the film's events into motion.
Just as the pinhole prick made by a pebble cracking a windshield almost certainly results in a virtual spider-webbing of stress fractures, the act of taking one's own life to end one's own misery almost inevitably results in causing incalculable pain to a network of survivors.
Screenwriters Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau (Trouble Every Day) use the desperate final leap of husband, father, and failing businessman Jacques (Laurent Grévill, I Can't Sleep), as the jumping off point for establishing the narratives of his relatives, friends and associates, all of which intertwine.
His widow Sandra (Julie Bataille, Paris, Je T'Aime) is understandably shattered, and threatening suicide. What's more, she's filled with rage and accusation. In the film's most powerful scene, She blames the death of her husband and the sexual abuse of her estranged teenage daughter Justine (Lola Crèton) on a wealthy business man named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor, White Material), and the police for not arresting him on those charges.
Marco (Vincent Lindon, Augustine) gives up his sea-faring life to care his aggrieved sister and his ravaged niece. Though he suspects the charges against Laporte may have been exaggerated, he nonetheless begins studying him in a manner that suggests obsession. Is it a coincidence that the Paris apartment he takes is one floor above the one where Laporte's ex-wife Raphaëlle now resides? Is their smoldering relationship about sexual hunger, budding affection, or is Marco manipulating her in order to gain information about Edouard?
Questions about the characters' inner motivation and outward behaviors are inspired by almost every scene, which gets Bastards off to a running start: How, where, and when will these narrative tendrils connect?
But the build-up can only take a film so far and ultimately it's time to either poop or get off the pot, sweet as you please. Perhaps it's not surprising—given Denis' reputation as a filmmaker of contradictions and extremes—that she opts to compromise, by effectively smearing fecal paste all over the pot and then leaving the mess for someone else to clean up. From this point on, Bastards chooses to take the sleazy way out-while leaving most of the key questions unanswered—by descending into an ever more disturbing series of images—a pageantry of perversions, if you will.
Just so we're clear, this includes a tour of a (literal) sex farm, complete with a (heavily stained) staging area, and littered with bloody corn cobs, which mostly likely correspond with the stark image of a dazed young woman wandering the streets at night, covered only by high-heeled shoes and the blood flowing from her vagina. There's more, but if you're interested, you'll have to see this for yourself. As for me, I'll be happy to forget the whole sordid business as soon as possible!
For better or worse, MPI offers a solid 1.85:1 Widescreen transfer that clearly presents the amazing cinematography of longtime Denis collaborator Agnès Godard in all its beauty (and deliberate ugliness), just as the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound makes the most of the French dialogue (with optional English subtitles) and a triumphant score by British indie band The Tindersticks. The set's lone extra is a trailer for the main feature.
Make no mistake: Claire Denis is no less than one of contemporary cinema's leading lights; a masterful storyteller who thrives with risky and uncomfortable material. Bastards features a strong cast and a brilliantly provocative first act, which makes it doubly frustrating when the plot is lost. My guess is that Denis realized too late she bit off more than she could chew and spat it out before asphyxiating.
Unfortunately, she then decided to serve it to the rest of us.
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