The Bastards (Les salauds) (Claire Denis – France/Germany) 100 minutes
Claire Denis returns with her first film since 2009’s White Material and films in digital for the first time. The Bastards is a strange confection – expertly constructed for the most part, a film of the utmost seriousness but which is ultimately compromised by the sensationalism of its subject matter. Like many of Denis’ films, the plot is divulged piecemeal, in ambiguously-mounted fragments. The Bastards (its English title yields more unintentional humour than the more forthright French original) opens with the apparent suicide of a bankrupt businessman, Jacques (Laurent Grevill). Close to his body, a young woman is seen walking naked, in a seemingly drugged state, with blood running from between her legs. She turns out to be his daughter, Justine (Lola Créton – recently seen in Olivier Assayas’ Après mai/Something in the Air). She is then taken to hospital while her mother, Sandra (Julie Bataille) berates the police for failing to act on a complaint Jacques had filed regarding a sleazy businessman, Édouard Laporte (Michel Butor) who had been issuing loans to him.
Left helpless, Sandra calls her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a naval captain, home, to exact retribution. He moves into the apartment upstairs from Laporte and starts a relationship with Laporte’s much younger mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). Meanwhile, he is told that Justine will need corrective surgery to repair the damage done by her sexual assault; Justine, however, in an echo of Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, wants to get back to her tormenter and even appears to be in love with him.
Denis, one of the finest French filmmakers currently working, builds the narrative with consummate grace. The film’s tone is aptly morose, with an eerie score contributed by her regular collaborators, Tindersticks; Lindon, even if he is beginning to get more than a bit typecast as the strong silent, single (always single) middle-aged man, is a credible, sympathetic presence in the lead role. Yet the film jars, even in its early moments. Denis got the idea for the film from a news story she had read about a young woman who was found lying in a back street having been drugged and sexually abused by human traffickers. Her intent was clearly serious but the film can’t help but be weighed down by the luridness of the narrative. It is all a bit Steig Larsson, and, even when documenting the most horrendous crimes, it has a similar tendency to the overblown and baroque. Perhaps if she had made it in more of a straight-forward way, from the point of view of the abusers, it might have had more of a dramatic punch and the gravity of its subject-matter maintained. By casting the film as a conspiratorial noir though, she is hampered too much by genre convention, and the result is no less unfortunately camp than Paul Schrader’s Hardcore was, way back in 1979.