Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Claire Denis's Bastards (2013) is showing April 14 – May 13, 2019 in the United States.
Claire Denis' Bastards has often been referred to as an exploration of power, money, and depravity, or as an allegory for late capitalism. The figure of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor)—an ironclad businessman whom neither the police nor the law courts seem to have any interest in investigating—stands here as the personification of a corrupt economic system, the ultimate devil onto whom it is easy to project our high-profile tycoons and shady politicians. This may indeed be the soil—the given—in which Bastards is rooted, but it can also cloud our vision as to what the film ultimately unfolds.
Blindness is a major theme in Claire Denis's Bastards. Marco (Vincent Lindon), a naval captain, returns to Paris after the suicide of his brother-in-law and the hospitalization of his niece Justine (Lola Créton). Sandra (Julie Bataille), his sister, is in debt. Sandra blames Laporte for the family's economic downfall; she also holds this man responsible both for her husband’s death, and for having turned Justine into his sex object. Marco plots his revenge: he sells all his belongings, rents an apartment next to Laporte's and seduces his mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). But, as the saying goes, there is none so blind as (s)he who will not see. And Sandra is a woman who refuses to see, who is not ready to do so. The film lays down the complicated chain of events that will force her, finally, to see.
Marco has remained apart from his family for a long time and, in order to follow the thread of events, he entrusts himself to a blind guide. The smokescreen built by Sandra tarnishes not only her vision, but also his—and ours. Bastards unfolds by adopting the hero's point of view, sometimes in a literal sense (we see what he sees, know what he knows), sometimes becoming an extension of his feelings and impressions. One of the most powerful examples of the latter is the introduction of Laporte. First, we are confronted with his public image: business profiles and gossip reports found by Marco on the Internet; immediately after, we see Laporte in the darkness of his bedroom—he undresses, lies in bed and, quite matter-of-factly, asks Raphaëlle to jerk him off. This scene—which seems propelled by the hero's psychic projection—quickly transfers Marco's revulsion for Laporte to the spectator.
Many aspects of Bastards are modeled on the noir genre: the conception of the main character as a tragic hero, the labyrinthine network of dark relations, and the uncertainty surrounding each party's motivations. We are constantly forced to rethink what is being staged in each scene, to question the attitude of those involved in the story, and to re-evaluate each character in relation to the stereotypes with which we associate them. Aesthetically, there is a suffocating quality in Bastards that owes much to the textures and tones achieved by Agnès Godard, thanks to digital cinematography. Dominated by an ochre, black, and orange palette, this film feels like a sticky, urban summer night in which you can almost smell the burning asphalt. With her usual collaborator, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis has conceived a minimalistic and fragmented script that rests on a series of routine actions—observation and waiting, exchanges and transactions, meetings and displacements—presented in a dry, raw manner. Upon a first viewing, Bastards may appear to linger on loose ends, but it is, in fact, tightly plotted. As often happens in Denis's cinema, causal links have been deliberately blurred, leaving us with an elliptical narration that we must ourselves connect.
The viewer needs to be alert to those apparently minor details that burn with everything the story itself conceals. The smallest gestures may contain clues to the greatest mysteries. Sandra's nervous hands—during her drive with Marco—reveal the concern of someone who knows more than she admits; Justine's outstretched and exhorting arm in the video that appears at the film's end, her expression and posture as she walks naked in the streets, complicate our vision of the character as just a victim, and confront us with questions regarding her desire. The casting of Julie Bataille and Lola Créton as mother and daughter is superb—the failure of their affective relationship is accentuated by the fact that the two actors share not one single scene in the whole film.
In Bastards, props act as intermediaries between characters, as bearers of emotions, or fetishes of absent bodies—as signs announcing a turn in trajectory or a shift in perception. Sometimes, this is presented almost transparently: the coat that Marco buys for his daughter, the shirt within which he wraps packs of cigarettes, the clock he pawns and which is later acquired by Raphaëlle. At other times, however, the props are part of a more elaborate strategy. Across the film, a bicycle belonging to Laporte's son serves to punctuate the milestones in Marco's revenge plot. Early on, he repairs this bicycle, gaining the trust of mother and child; later, Marco imagines the abandoned bicycle as evidence of the harm he's inflicted on the kid; finally, in a scene that is a nightmarish reverse of this fantasy, the bicycle signals the advent of the hero's fatal destiny—his power revealing itself to be totally illusory.
Denis has avowed two key influences in the making of Bastards: William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary (1931), and Akira Kurosawa's film The Bad Sleep Well (1960). From Kurosawa, she inherits the plot template—a revenge plan frustrated by love—and the central role devoted to shoes. In The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa introduces, during a wedding party sequence, an extraordinary close-up of the bride's feet: the girl is wearing traditional geta sandals and, due to her limp, stumbles, on the verge of falling over. This moment of unbearable tension, built with great skill, perfectly expresses the woman’s fragility. In Bastards, conversely, the high-heeled shoes with which Justine walks down the street are the sign of a proud femininity—despite the violence that has been imposed on her. In Bastards, the images of shoes not only offer a powerful condensation of the rise and fall of the family business, but also shed new light on the three female characters who wear them.
From Faulkner's Sanctuary, there remains a series of details that seem to have been etched in Denis's memory and returned to us in a few, indelible images: the corn, the male's sexual impotence, the blood running down Justine's legs. But, above all, there's the decision to construct an intricate narrative gravitating around what’s unsayable and unshareable in the girl's experience. Both Sanctuary and Bastards thread a net around facts that can only be alluded to in a fragmented, veiled, and dispersed manner. More than a strategy to merely maintain the suspense, this choice seems to be an acknowledgement of the complexity surrounding the experience, enmeshed in tortuous feelings, and spreading in deadly ramifications.
Recently, Denis has linked Bastards with her latest film, High Life (2018), declaring that it is important to talk about what is considered taboo in a time of puritanism. And yet, Bastards doesn't deny the difficulty in finding an appropriate way of facing this taboo—while, at the same time, refusing to conform to the proper approach dictated by some general, ideological consensus. The film takes great pains in order to reach its conclusion. It follows many detours and plants many red herrings, on the way to the moment when it is able to show us its final images. Upon its initial release, the ending of Bastards spurred great controversy: perhaps Denis's gesture—turning a piece of evidence into something much more charged and disquieting—was not grasped at all; or, perhaps, it was grasped all too well…
The final images of the film mimic the grainy texture of a low-definition camera, but do not obey the realistic and disinterested capture of the neutral device that supposedly took them. There is a deliberate manipulation—impossible angles and camera movements, montage across the shots, the inclusion of the Hot Chocolate song “Put Your Love in Me” covered by Tindersticks—whose purpose seems to be not so much the exposition of the bare facts, but an apprehension of the state in which Justine has been suspended. The song's lyrics that come to us from this limbo ("Tonight I wanna touch the stars / Tonight I wanna be in heaven / Put your love in me") may be better understood in light of Justine's confession, uttered the only time she speaks in the whole film: "I love him."