Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury give us another terrifying vision of horror, this time in a dark fantasy like some forgotten fairy tale.
Les Salauds (English title: Bastards). 2013. Dir. Claire Denis. Screenplay by Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau.
Starring Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni. Wild Bunch.
Unrated. 100 minutes.
Marco (Lindon) is a sailor. A well-known one at that. He’s long cut off any ties with his family. After his brother-in-law commits suicide, Marco’s sister asks him to come help take care of the man who is responsible- a man named Edouard Laporte (who looks creepily like the last pope, the scary German one). So Marco gets an apartment in the city to start investigating things himself. Soon, he begins having a sexual relationship with Laporte’s wife (Mastroianni). Not long after this the real doozy events start piling up.
First is the shocking revelation Marco discovers from his niece’s doctor: her vagina is so badly damaged they need to do reconstructive surgery on it in the near future to have any chance at repairing it. I hesitate to say anything further. Shortly after, Marco thinks he has the truth. Unfortunately for him, and his niece, things are not at all what they seem. For those who’ve experienced the work of Claire Denis before now, Bastards pretty much sits right on par with her most disturbing, unnerving work. Though Trouble Every Day is my favourite film of hers personally, this one comes into the top few numbers.
Denis focuses many of her films around violence, however, it’s not often she indulges the imagery in full force. Much of the imagery she chooses to use, while disturbing, is usually subtle, subdued. Denis understands the less is sometimes more. Certainly, when dealing with rape, and particularly here in Bastards a really vile sort (if you can imagine categorizing such a thing by its level of heinousness), it’s easier to let the audience conjure up their own, often more personal, images of these things. That eats at the core of an audience more than anything, even if they don’t realize it themselves. Denis does this in Bastards.
In particular, one specific image dominates the entire film. It happens just before the 45-minute mark, as Marco is shown around what looks to be an apparent backwoods porn studio of sorts, which caters to people who like to ‘do their own thing’. First, we’re treated to some horribly candid shots – cumshots. Denis lingers on Marco as he eyes the filth in thie place. Then, on the floor, Marco sees something. Something which I, on the first viewing, had to rewind just to see. I couldn’t believe it. I knew, knowing Denis and her work, this would probably end up being disturbing, or shocking in some sort of way. But I was definitely surprised, and sufficiently disturbed, once I saw what Marco saw himself. I won’t reveal it – let’s just say, he leaves with more knowledge and more anger than when he’d walked in there. Also, it calls to mind the novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner.
There’s another moment when Marco’s niece runs away from the hospital that really gets me. It isn’t graphic so much as it’s there, present, in your face, while Denis shows it to us in shadowy darkness, as if to say “imagine what else you can’t see right now”. We get glimpses of the niece and her vicious injuries, but only in tiny snapshots, barely enough to really register. Maybe that’s a good thing. The story is not for everyone. It’s not graphic visually, but once you put the pieces together behind the plot you really bite your fist a bit. And not in a good way. It will make you cringe. I feel I’m desensitized, mainly that’s as far as horror imagery goes. When it comes to subject matter there are still things which really bother me. For instance, rape, and even worse the rape of a minor. There are tough bits in here. Then of course the finale really blows your top off. And not in a good way.
The final shot is beautiful, dark, disturbing, and Denis sets it to a Tindersticks cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” – this will haunt me to the end of my days. The song itself is haunting, but coupled with the images Denis shows while it plays, just long enough before the credits eventually cut in to roll, this is absolutely crushing. It is amazing. Yet a terribly powerful moment that really had an effect on me. The way it’s shot, the music, what’s actually happening in the scene – remarkable. Possibly my favourite part, although highly unsettling, in the entire film. Denis is a master of her craft.
If you’re not into disturbing subject matter, if you can’t enjoy a plot laden with both sex and some graphic themes centered on sexual violence, then I suggest you take a pass on Denis’ Bastards. This is a challenging film. There are even bits you might feel a little conflicted towards. Marco’s relationship with Laporte’s wife gets into some very deep and murky territory at points. The ending of the film got to me, I must say. For me, the film was wonderful.
I dig the way Denis approaches tough subject matter. I also admire her talent as a director. There are very beautiful shots here amongst all of the misery in Bastards. It isn’t all a pit of despair. Not only that, but Denis always manages to find a good performance. From the likes of Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo to her regular work with Alex Descas (here as the doctor to Marco’s niece), there is always great work in her films. Here, Vincent Lindon really does a phenomenal job as the male lead. He is a bit mysterious, even dangerous. He’s got a bit of dirty side to him. Nowhere near as dirty as the people he investigates during his own little trip into the underworld, in search of whoever it was that hurt his niece. His performance really carries a film that could easily be dragged down by its intense and disturbing subject matter.
All in all I have to give this film a 4.5 out of 5 stars. It’s a fantastic, yet grim, work by Claire Denis. She continues to make challenging films. Most of her work is not easy, and maybe not totally accessible. But when you sit through one of them and really absorb things, they get under your skin. Denis has caused many nights of wondering for me, particularly with her film
Trouble Every Day, as I mentioned earlier being my favourite work of hers. Bastards is almost neck and neck with that one. Hard to choose between. Very different, but also both very amazing pieces of work. The only reason I don’t give Bastards a full 5 star rating is because I wish there was a little more SOMETHING to it. I’m not sure what that something is, but I just know there’s a tiny little bit of something, whatever it may be, missing from this film. Not that it detracts from the rest of it. I was just left wanting more at the end. Not in a way that excited me, but a small disappointment, as if I’d been waiting for one other thing to leap out at me. Regardless of that, I think Bastards is well worth watching. Not only is it challenging, it’s just a well-written and well-acted film. Denis’ films are all visually interesting, no matter what their subject. This is no exception to that rule. If you’re ready for something fairly dark and stormy some night, pick up a copy of Bastards, and you won’t regret it even if the story is tough to chew at times.
But one thing’s for certain – don’t count on the ending to cheer you up and band-aid those emotional cuts and bruises. It’ll only beat you up some more.