A bloody and stomach-twisting thriller that keeps you on edge.
Bastards begins in the pouring rain, at night, as we watch a man write a letter and open wide the windows of his apartment. We see the windowsill and the rain and then we see the sidewalk. Without showing us the jump, we know the man has committed suicide. Starting a film with such a moment sets a certain kind of tone, especially when the audience is not shown the act itself. We are being told ‘this is going to be a dark film, it is going to upset you, and it is not going to explain itself’. Remarkably, Denis manages to maintain such a delicate tone from start to finish.
Denis’ faithfulness to her tone of choice is probably the most impressive aspect of this work and what makes it so engrossing despite the difficulties it presents to the viewer. Not the least of these difficulties is the looseness of the narrative. There are several threads of this web-like story and each seems to be stretching off into different directions. Slowly, the film begins to tie them together, but by the final shot the knot isn’t tied very tight and there are even more unanswered questions than at the film’s outset.
Though Denis’ almost absolute lack of exposition and explanation can be off-putting, she makes sure that the audience has enough of what they need to construct a story and instead chooses to emphasize style and technicality above dialogue-heavy storytelling. Denis’ œuvre is known for its emphasis on bodies, and especially bodies as they move through space. There are many scenes of characters alone, lacking voiceover or any traditional narration, instead implying internalized thought processes that the viewer is left to wonder at. Several of these solitary sequences depict characters walking or moving, whether through their apartments, down a Paris street, or in an abstracted forest. The effect of all this forward motion of characters is one of inevitably, implying a fatalistic worldview.
What these sequences do for us is present recurring symbols like women’s shoes and ears of corn. Denis presents these symbols, but doesn’t quite provide associations or meanings for them. These objects seem to almost exist in a world of their own, as if in a vacuum where the viewer is free to attach his own meanings to them as he sees fit.
It is also important to note that Bastards is a brutal film. It is not an easy watch by any means. As far as physically discomforting sequences are concerned, there is blood, there is violence. And if that alone weren’t enough, the vast majority of it is sexual in nature, making it even more difficult to endure. If it is even possible, the psychological horrors and paranoia of the film are even worse, raising the level of tension to near hysteric heights. The absolutely devastating final sequence ensured that no one left the theater without wide eyes and shaking hands.
Bastards (original title: Les salauds) was directed by Claire Denis and written by her and Jean-Pol Fargeau. It stars Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni. It first screened in the “Un certain regard” category at Cannes Film Festival. We screened the film at The Metrograph.