Claire Denis gives her bleak revenge-thriller a distinctive, seductive centre
Fri, Dec 6 – Thu, Dec 12
Directed by Claire Denis
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
A suicide attended to by Parisian police in gauzy nocturnal rain; a man throwing cigarettes wrapped in a shirt from his balcony to a woman in the lamp-lit street below; flashlights snaking through grass to discover a child’s discarded bicycle; a young woman, transfixed and naked save for a pair of pumps, walking along lonesome damp, chiaroscuro backstreets; piles of shoes that will never be sold, echoed by scattered cobs of corn on the floor of some rural hideaway, with traces of blood and hair, echoed by bodies strewn across a wood near a wrecked car. Such images, all of them haunted and enigmatic, all of them unfolding in darkened places, are sewn into the doomy mosaic that is Bastards, the most recent and arguably bleakest film from the great Claire Denis.
It is, curiously for an auteur typically associated with difficult-to-categorize works, very much a genre piece: a revenge thriller, a neo-noir, with undisguised roots in William Faulkner’s notoriously seedy 1931 novel Sanctuary and Akira Kurosawa’s lesser-known 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well. It has a surprisingly clean, almost conventional narrative—that is, once you decipher the character relationships, which Denis, who always favours ellipses over explication, does little to spell out. And yet Bastards is as distinctive, intelligent, daring and eerily seductive as nearly anything in Denis’ oeuvre, which includes Chocolat (1988), I Can’t Sleep (1994), Beau Travail (1999), 35 rhums (2008) and White Material (2009). If you’re unfamiliar with Denis’ work, which, though challenging, rarely gets the sort of distribution it deserves, I urge you to take advantage of Metro’s week-long run.
The plot of this film about plots follows Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon), a naval captain who retires early and cashes in all his assets to help his sister, who in quick succession loses her husband, discovers her daughter (Something in the Air’s Lola Créton) has been sexually abused and is forced to shut down the family shoe manufacturing business—women’s footwear functions as a potent visual refrain throughout. Though not apparent from the outset, Marco is quietly undertaking a campaign of revenge against Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), his brother-in-law’s former business partner, who Marco believes is responsible for the strife that’s afflicted his family. The focus of Marco’s campaign is Laporte’s mistress Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). Marco moves into the apartment across the hall, and gradually moves in on Raphaëlle, too.
The cast is drawn largely from what could be regarded as Denis’ stock company: besides Lindon, costar of Denis’ 2002 film Friday Night and Subor, whose singular visage has appeared in several Denis films, most notably 2004’s The Intruder, there are supporting turns from Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas and Nicole Dogué. Only Mastroianni, an alluring actress whose screen presence comes freighted with the ghosts of her legendary parents—Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve—is new among the key players. Mother to a small boy and something of a kept woman, Raphaëlle is Bastards’ most vulnerable character, but also its most mysterious. Denis clearly loves Lindon’s Marco, with his rugged handsomeness and tragic single-mindedness, but she seems most fascinated by Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle, so cagey and unassuming, a seeming pawn in a match between two men, both of them bastards in their way, with Marco proving to be a less than perfect father and Laporte an outright corporate Satan. And this seems appropriate: Denis has brought her uniquely sensuous approach to storytelling to what would stereotypically be thought of as a man’s filmic territory—but the darkly luminous centre to this tale is very much a female.