BASTARDS (Les Salauds) A
France Germany (97 mi) 2013 d: Claire Denis
France Germany (97 mi) 2013 d: Claire Denis
One of the mysteries at Cannes this year was leaving this film out of competition, where easily one of the best films of the year was relegated to the second tier of Un Certain Regard films, especially since Claire Denis is one of the great artists working today, where you’d think France would want to showcase her unique talent. The director herself may have been too modest about drawing attention to herself, which competition films tend to do, at least for the first screening anyway where it’s like the creator is the very center of the universe, as all eyes are on the film while enthusiasts around the word await the critical results. For most, it’s an enviable position, as cinema’s most prestigious festival provides so much free publicity, but Denis shirks the limelight and retains a more private profile, allowing each one of her films to speak for themselves. Due to the narrative ambiguities in nearly all her films, they’re often misunderstood initially and gain more of a critical following only much later. The reasons for this are the inherent complexities of her films, which often take some time to digest, and aren’t suited for one time only, knee-jerk reactions. Nonetheless, the announcement of a new Claire Denis film is always a major cinematic “event,” as the director has simply never made a bad film and continues to make challenging works that are both intelligent and adult in nature. Loosely drawing upon William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary (1931), Denis raises similar unspeakably dark themes of rampant drug use, corruption, family betrayal, infidelity, incest, lurid sexual crimes, as well as corncob rape sequences, all of which leads the viewer into a downward spiraling cesspool of utterly despicable human behavior. As bleak and downbeat a film as you will see all year, it continually surprises, however, with fractured narrative ambiguity, visual mastery from cinematographer Agnès Godard, and superb leading performances from Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni.
Working for the first time with a digital camera, the director’s usual methodical long takes, including static wide shots of landscapes mixed with tight close ups are replaced here by the suffocating intimacy of a handheld camera, giving the film a jagged, deeply fragmented syle, shot mostly using claustrophobic interior locations, creating a deeply unsettling, psychologically disturbing look at French sex trafficking and prostitution scandals involving powerful men of great wealth. Denis indicated the film started with an idea she had after watching several Kurosawa films from the 50’s and 60’s starring Toshirô Mifune, which made her think of Vincent Lindon’s body, solid, sexy, “a body you can trust, a solid body you can lean on. In Kurosawa’s films, the tragedy is that this strong man was crushed by corruption or mistrust at the end. My film started with that body.” Denis also read a news story about a young woman found drugged and naked next to a garbage dumpster. In this film, set in the unrelenting bleakness of a noirish nightmare, she imagines a backdrop to her story. Opening in a torrent of rain that obscures our view out the window, while inside a man is seen through a doorway staring at the image in the shower, creating a sense of intimacy and voyeurism. Then, an intrusion, as if from another world, where a young girl (Lola Créton) in heels is seen dazed and naked wandering down an empty Parisian street at night, stumbling out of the house where her father has committed suicide (never explained), and her mother (Julie Bataille) is being led away by the police, blaming everyone in sight, It happens so quickly we’re not sure of the relationships, only that it takes place in the flicker of a murky gloom, becoming the darkest movie Denis has ever made, where characters are literally submerged in the incessant foul play.
Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon) is a ship captain that receives news of the suicide while at sea, where he’s dropped off to come to the aid of his sister Sandra (Bataille) and niece Justine (Créton), who ends up in a psychiatric hospital. The family business of women’s shoes has gone belly up with bills it can’t hope to pay, where his sister blames it all on the actions of wealthy international financier Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) who has bankrupted her husband’s business. Marco rents a flat in the same building as Laporte, where he’s immediately intrigued by his sexually attractive partner, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). The building itself becomes a centerpiece of the film, where the massive interiors are barely lit, suggesting an unfillable emptiness, and an insatiable desire, where Marco and Raphaëlle, who is almost always left alone, begin a torrid affair, with Godard illuminating the faces in close up shots that appear like lurking shadows. While the erotic moments become the most stable aspects of his multi-layered life, Marco becomes the moral center of the film, symbolized as the virtuous, male protective body, taking care of Raphaëlle’s restless insecurities while looking after Sandra and Justine as well. Denis clearly sympathizes with the caged-like plight of the femme fatale character of Raphaëlle, making great efforts for the audience to identify with her complications and moral ambiguity, where she could just as easily be the protagonist of the film, which is why the finale is so shockingly effective. In someone else’s hands, it would never have the unmistakable poetry, where Denis’s approach is more delicate, subtle, and nuanced. The film is a The Intruder (L’intrus)-like trip into the heart of darkness, where the dysfunctional family element provides a theme of contamination and infection reminiscent of Trouble Every Day (2001), an immaculate noir in the classical sense, dark and convoluted, where Denis offers empathy for her characters throughout.
The voyeuristic aspect of the film intrudes into the audience as well, as we clearly get inside the head of characters who are both being watched and those doing the watching, with both forces eventually brought together in an erotic embrace, where we again project ourselves into the drama without actually leaving our seats. Of interest is the way Denis holds the audience in rapt attention by the way she films the seduction scene. Typically in film noir the femme fatale lures the hero into a compromising position, but here Marco is actively seducing Raphaëlle, shown with his back to the camera, where the audience sees the effects of her sexual longing, often changing the focus and perspective between them, continually sucking the audience into this lurid world of sexual intrigue. But Marco hasn’t a clue what kind of world he’s returning to, having been away at sea, avoiding all family ties and responsibilities, where his family dysfunction, like that of Raphaëlle’s world, is clouded in a maze of secrets and deception, the kind that only money can protect, not best intentions, where he couldn’t possibly understand the deep-seeded ramifications of just how far his sister and her husband would abdicate their parental responsibilities, allowing the film to touch upon issues of sexual exploitation that open doors into horror and terror. By the time the audience gets wind of just how prevalent the danger is surrounding this man, with people driven by base impulses, where particularly odious is a skin-crawling incest subplot, with literally everyone around him synonymous with the film’s title, we realize that he’s doomed, unable to extract himself from this sinking quicksand that is the moral abyss he’s found himself in, which only makes the enveloping dread and anguish more devastating. Played out like a fever dream where love is nonexistent but delusion is everpresent, we watch the slow, poisoned, self-inflicted destruction of two family units, one irreparably shattered, the other hanging by a thread, where the exposure of their secrets rises like a dark shadow out of the ashes of doom.