by Angelo Muredda A Claire Denis film through and through, Bastards is nevertheless a brilliant departure for one of the most distinctive artists in world cinema--an indignant revenge thriller with, of all things, a straightforward plot. Of course, the plot is scrambled, doled out in the runic fragments that have become Denis's stock-in-trade. We open, for instance, in the rain, as a throbbing Tindersticks track underscores a series of beautiful but inscrutable nocturnal images: glimpses of a man forlornly staring out his window, languorous tracking shots of a nude young woman in heels roaming through a deserted street, and finally a tableau of a dead man's body splayed out beneath a fire escape, surrounded by paramedics in the background as a woman, probably his wife, is draped in a tinfoil blanket in the fore. Although films like L'Intrus have primed us to accept such shards as part of an impressionistic array of visual information, adding up to a textured view of nighttime Paris as a hopelessly lonely place, in Bastards the pieces fit together in a precise way we're simply not allowed to know until we've arrived through the movie's own idiosyncratic channel, and at its own deliberate pace. That makes it one of the most elegantly constructed of Denis's eleven features--a grim noir story broken into its component parts, then reassembled into a haunted funhouse image of itself.
Vincent Lindon, the sad-eyed, almost absurdly masculine half of the couple in Vendredi soir, plays Marco, a tanker captain whose gilded watch and tailored dress shirts betray a man born into wealth. His days at sea numbered, Marco is drawn into the disturbing world of the family he'd left behind, prompted by the sudden death of a brother-in-law whose debt-ridden final days put him in the pocket of sleazy financier Eduard Laport (Michel Stubor). In exchange for his company's bailout, it's suggested, Laport brought Marco's niece (Lola Creton, the woman we see wandering in the opening montage) into an underground sex syndicate, seriously abusing and brainwashing her in the process. Enter Marco as the disgraced, bankrupted family's official sin eater: Summoned back to Paris, he hocks his Alfa Romero for liquid cash and settles into the same posh building as Laport, hoping to insinuate himself in the bastard's life by striking up an affair with the man's neglected, much younger wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni).
Despite its elliptical presentation, which has us holding most of the major narrative blocks in the air until we know where to sequence them, this is a surprisingly linear story for a filmmaker prone to fruitful asides--the young lovers indulging in a long kiss over the opening credits of Trouble Every Day, for example, held and then discarded; or the spectral appearances of Yekaterina Golubeva in L'Intrus. Here, even the initially opaque details--a family heirloom in a pawn-shop window, the body in the street--all have a teleological function in the grand design. Indeed, Denis seems more interested this time in playing with our desire--born of and indulged by the revenge-thriller genre--to see an ostensibly free agent like Marco become a power player, avenging his family against a corrupt man and scoring a point for justice in the process. That desire, the picture suggests, is a fruitless one when the pieces are ultimately all there regardless of the precise order in which they'll fall. Marco, then, is simply playing out his family script, his actions and their ultimate success or failure directed by an indifferent air-traffic controller.
Bleak as that may sound, not even this fatalistic progression (the ominous sense, throughout, that things are winding down to a bad end) prepares us for the dire coda, a sign-off that outdoes the finales of both Olivier Assayas's Demonlover and David Cronenberg's Videodrome, each of which Bastards resembles, for pure, radioactive cynicism. Closing with the video evidence we've long been promised, Denis lands on not justice but its demonic parody, as blurry images of the family's grotesque home movies, in a manner of speaking, play out against the arpeggiated synths of Tindersticks' "Put Your Love in Me," a kind of nightclub anthem for the undead. The most corrosive work of a master filmmaker, Bastards lingers in the mind for days after you've see it, though you wish it wouldn't.
Bastards opens today at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, anointing the essential month-long chronological retrospective "Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis." Visit the TIFF website for more details.