Saturday, October 12, 2013

Rubbing Our Faces In It: Claire Denis’s Bastards

Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Lindon in Bastards

She’s only made eleven features in her 25 year film career, but French filmmaker Claire Denis’s output has been stellar, with nearly half a dozen masterpieces (J'ai pas sommeil / I Can't Sleep (1994), Nénette et Boni / Nenette and Boni (1996), Vendredi soir / Friday Night (2002), L'intrus / The Intruder (2004); 35 rhums / 35 Shots of Rum (2008)) to her credit and very few duds. Thus, it pains me to point out how unpleasant and offensive Bastards (Les Salauds), her latest movie, actually is. It’s a revenge thriller that’s almost as simply drawn as Charles Bronson’s two-dimensional Death Wish (1974) and in terms of pandering to the basest prejudices of its audience, it, incredibly, is reminiscent of the torture porn aspects of vile films like the Saw and Hostel series. We’re talking about Claire Denis, still one of France’s finest talents and, prior, to this movie, a demonstrated class act. What was she thinking?

The film, which anchors a Claire Denis retrospective in Toronto, opens with a man contemplating suicide on a rainy night in Paris. Next shot is of a naked young woman, blood flowing down her legs, walking, stunned, along the mean city streets. The following morning, Sandra (Julie Bataille), the suicide’s widow, weeps over his body. She blames a powerful French business mogul, Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor, one of Denis’ cast of regular actors who pop up throughout the film), for her husband’s death – he had warned the police about Laporte’s danger to his safety, as well as bankrupting him because of shady business dealings - and then reaches out to her seafaring brother Marco (Vincent Lindon) – he’s a captain on a Russian trawler – who hastens home to Paris to help his distraught sibling. How the young woman figures into the whole picture and what happens after forms the basis of Bastards, which begins promisingly before, unfortunately wallowing in the worst of human nature.

I had my doubts about the movie early on when we first hear Edouard – he’s been researched by Marco online – in bed next to his wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni ), ordering her to “jerk him off.” It’s a deliberately coarse comment – in of itself not a problem – but indicative of how Denis is portraying Edouard, as quite (and as it turns out solely) nasty and unlikeable. Until then, the film’s seeming, provocative premise – that we don’t know if Edouard is guilty of what Sandra says he is or whether Marco, who has moved into an apartment below Edouard and his wife, for as yet undisclosed but possibly sinister reasons, may actually turn out to be the villain of the piece – suggests a complex movie - and dynamic - that won’t play out as expected. (Admittedly, the movie is not predictable but it still unfurls in a repellent way.) In short, Denis, who’s never been known for black and white characterization, is doing exactly that with the character of Edouard.

Director Claire Denis
Denis goes further, however, painting pretty much everyone, except the innocent young female victim Justine (Lola Crèton), with that same dirty brush. This is a movie about the evil committed by men – and women – and about those who ignore its existence; but Denis’ take on this age old story pretty much exploits and wallows in the degradation she is ostensibly chronicling and condemning. Consider Justine’s plight. When the kindly doctor who is treating her (Alex Descas, from 35 rhums) tells her mother that her daughter’s vagina has been grievously torn through repeated sexual assaults and may not be repairable, it’s shocking. But Denis isn’t content to let the blunt words make their indelible point, she keeps revisiting the scene of Justine walking down the street from early in Bastards, with her camera lingering on Justine’s naked body and the blood flowing freely. It’s as exploitative an image as any male filmmaker has ever been accused of shooting and the most offensive French film scene I’ve seen since Gaspar Noé’s drama Irréversible (2002), the penultimate scene of which has a man beaten to death until his brains ooze out of his shattered skull. Denis doesn’t go that far, but the squeamish, unwelcome effect of her movie ultimately emanates from the same place.

It’s not that Denis should not be looking under the rock at the seaminess of human nature. It’s a valid subject for cinema and, properly, she’s never shied away from it in powerful movies like S'en fout la mort / No Fear, No Die (1990), which provocatively dealt with the brutal world of cockfighting, or J'ai pas sommeil, which memorably portrayed the actions of a pair of French serial killers. But it’s how she does it in Bastards that's the problem. The movie’s revelations come in such a way and are directed in such an obvious and assaulting manner as to indict and condemn the audience for not knowing about the sexual degradations underlying ordinary life. (Other than letting us in on the ‘secret’ that bad things happen to good people, there’s not much depth to Bastards, surprising coming from a filmmaker whose protests of French society have almost always been so layered and rich.) Denis’ take on in this, however, is not the sympathetic but shocking view of David Lynch’s masterful Blue Velvet (1986) but one that is meretricious in the extreme, from Agnès Godard's ravishing cinematography – at odds with the dark subject matter – to Stuart Staples and Tinderstick’s overly insistent score. (Usually that British group’s soundtracks for Denis’ films are highly effective but the music in Bastards is mostly tinny, annoying and repetitive. I’ve tried listening to the music they’ve done for Denis separately from the movies on CD and, tellingly, to my mind, their scores, unlike the works of Nino Rota (The Godfather), Angelo Badalamenti (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) or Ennio Morricone (the Sergio Leone westerns), don’t have much emotional impact when divorced from their source material.) Even Bastards’ cinematic techniques, elliptical, flash forward scenes that build the narrative, were already undertaken in L’intrus and add nothing new here.

Vincent Lindon in Bastards

In that vein, the actors can’t do much more than show up. Vincent Lindon is a very good actor, skilled at playing everyman characters (The School of Flesh, Vendredi soir, La Moustache), but Marco isn’t much more than an angry avenger in Bastards and only gets to show a bit of depth in his forceful interactions with Laporte’s wife. The rest of the cast is game but forgettable, though Gregoire Colin (Nénette et Boni, 35 rhums) can’t do anything with his cliched nasty pornographer. Denis has gone off the rails once before, with her 2001 vampire flick Trouble Every Day, but you can make the claim that that was a thoroughly unsuccessful experiment in B movie making from a director who doesn’t have an affinity for that form and whose use of copious bloodletting was a concession to a necessary horror movie component. She didn’t exploit the gore so much as insert it ineptly into the mix. Having Vincent Gallo over-emote as the bloodsucker didn’t help, either. Bastards, however, is another creature altogether. I wouldn’t have imagined that Denis, whatever her arguments for the movie, could stoop so low but, likely, as Steve Vineberg wrote in his review of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, a film he deemed objectionable but made by a talented filmmaker, she saw something valid and valuable in the story, co-written by her and her regular screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau (L’intrus, 35 rhums). Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to be claiming Bastards is a feminist statement so as much as an “honest” look at an uncomfortable subject, though others surely will. (If it was, Sandra would be the putative hero of the movie instead of the tough minded and tough Marco.) But whatever Bastards finally is, this critic didn’t buy into it. Only as skilled a moviemaker as Denis could fail as utterly as she does here.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is teaching a course on acting archetypes.

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