There’s something rotten at the heart of Claire Denis despairing Un Certain Regard entry The Bastards, and you just know whatever it is will eventually consume the film’s lead character, but you can’t help but root for him anyway.
Vincent Lindon, whose weary but soulful and kindly face will be familiar to US arthouse audiences from films such as Madame Chambon and Anything for Her, plays Marco, a lone wolf who is drawn back into his family orbit when his sister’s husband commits suicide and her daughter turns up in a coma in the hospital. The sister suspects that rich guy Edouard Laporte (creepily played by Michel Subor) is to blame so Marco moves in to Laporte’s apartment building to investigate and plot revenge. There he falls for Laporte’s wife Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and it seems for a time he just might get the better of the richer man.
The deeper Marco digs however, the more he realizes he’s in over his head. The Bastards doesn’t quite work itself up to the scale of Chinatown – it’s much more intimate which is one of its strengths – but it flirts with similar ideas about the darkness which lurks just beneath the surface of the familiar, the emotional diseases that can doom entire families and the hopelessness of the ordinary man in the face of wealth and power.
It all sounds like a pretty straight forward film noir, from the dark rainy street that opens the film to the violence that ends it and I’m sure Denis is having fun playing with these tropes, but she delivers them all in her usual elliptically mysterious style. The Bastards is much more concrete and harder edged than her previous film, the ethereal, dream-like White Material, but it’s not entirely linear either. The story only gradually comes into focus (and I have to admit I wasn’t always entirely sure I was tracking it fully) and instead what prevails through most of the film’s 100 minutes is a yawning sense of gloom and insurmountable doom. The bleak climax feels preordained from the opening frames, yet it somehow manages to surprise in its bitter hopelessness especially compared to the relative warmth and humanity of Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum.
For me The Bastards isn’t the kind of film that jumps up and asserts its greatness. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first and I wondered if I should see it a second time before even attempting a review. I gave it a solid night’s sleep however and I found myself still thinking about it in the morning.