Claire Denis’s cinema is one of surfaces and textures. So often, the feel of skin, fabric, and the material world or a sense of fluidity in movement, both through the camera and the bodies it captures, plays a crucial role in her films’ thematic explorations and emotional expressivity. The sense of tenderness and intimacy that this creates makes it seemingly perfect for the softness and depth of celluloid film, so upon hearing her new film Bastards was her first to be shot in digital, I was a bit skeptical about how this new look would affect her aesthetic. However, from the rain-soaked opening, introducing fragments of narrative threads to be tugged at later on — a naked young woman wandering aimlessly down a Parisian street at night, a man alone in his office staring out at the rain (we soon learn he was about to commit suicide) and another woman being consoled by police — and the lone synth plunking a melancholy tune, it quickly became clear that this is going into much darker territory than where Denis usually treads. Her digital images — now crisp, angular, and flat — perfectly reflect the sadomasochistic world full of betrayal, greed, and desperation that’s on display.
The aforementioned narrative threads, weaving together something of a modern noir (inasmuch as anything by Denis could be circumscribed by genre) create a beautiful yet unsettling tableau of disconnection, alienation, and intense, unsatisfied longing in the modern urban world. Upon hearing of his brother-in-law’s suicide, ship captain Marco, played to stone-faced perfection by Vincent Lindon, goes AWOL and returns to Paris, quickly resolving to get revenge on Laporte, the capitalist vulture who supposedly drove his sister’s husband to desperation by forcing him further and further into debt. In doing this, Marco rents the apartment above the Laportes and, without initially intending it, begins an affair with the man’s wife and starts to fall for her. Also caught up in this tangled web is Marco’s niece, Justine, who we discover has recently been sexually assaulted, and who — even while still recovering from her wounds in the hospital — escapes to return to the drugs and sex that put her there.
As convoluted as it sounds on paper, Denis’s typical use of ellipses and perpetual air of ambiguity and mystery puts the narrative potboiler on the backburner. Connections are hinted at rather than clearly established; character motivations are left shrouded amidst the film’s nihilistic malaise and just as the viewer must work to connect the disparate pieces of the puzzle, so must these characters struggle to connect and understand one another, though their struggle remains perpetually unfulfilled.
Marco is posited as the film’s hero, yet even he, as masculine and in charge as he presents himself, is ineffectual at dealing with the titular bastards. And so Bastards is not so much about revenge as it his (and everyone else’s) complete inability to transform fleeting moments of passion, tenderness or simple connections into meaningful, lasting or even stable realities. Marco’s attempts to help his sister, niece, and Laporte’s wife are all stultified and while it appears that the film’s trio of women are worse off for not being straight and honest with him, their sieging of their own agency in the final act is one of Bastards most fascinating, complex, and satisfying turns. With the bastards having already stacked the deck in their favor and their victory inevitable, the women prefer to surrender on their own terms rather than allowing Marco to fall as their martyr.
Like most of Denis’s work, Bastards provides no clear conclusions and her characters’ behavior remains just as ineffable, endlessly complex, and unknowable as human behavior in real life. The final image, however, is a direct punch to gut: an outright plunging into the terrifying abyss that had to this point only been implied. Its crisp, clean, digital appearance changes drastically into a murky, pixelated mess that cuts through the surface of the film, laying the extent of the evil bare for all to see. With Beau Travail, Friday Night and now Bastards, it’s hard to think of other directors who end their films as strongly as Denis does.