IN THE CRITIC’S CHAIR: Bastards


Claire Denis doesn’t make mild-mannered films. 2013’s Bastards is no exception: a dark and deterministic noir, inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well and a particularly lurid William Faulkner novel, its worldview is black as pitch. For those prepared to take the plunge, a gripping mystery, potent atmospherics and unflinching social commentary await.  The story revolves around Marco, a sea captain returned to dry land to help his sister, whose husband has committed suicide to escape debts owed to a crooked businessman – who’s also been abusing Marco’s niece. What unfolds is a singular and haunting revenge thriller.

 

Bastards is a thriller of particularly tenacious enigmas. It creates a deep disquiet that isn’t assuaged by the resolution of the plot’s immediate mystery. Critics in both the Guardian and Little White Lies ruminated on its lingering aftertaste:

It isn’t there to be watched and understood in the conventional sense, but experienced or inhaled … leaves behind an oily residue of unease when you have awoken from the nightmare.

its terseness and sustained forward momentum will surely create questions in the minds of even the most seasoned filmgoer. While everything in this half-noir, half-Greek tragedy will be explained, Bastards is a film that begs for — and is worthy of — multiple viewings.


Other critics have attended to the formal details at work in Denis’s multifaceted, carefully crafted film. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis noted Denis’s use of close-ups, redolent of the most compelling, least straightforward kind of portraiture: 

Ms. Denis fills the movie with close-ups that give you a searching intimacy with the characters, allowing you to explore the creases in Mr. Lindon’s face and the curve of Ms. Créton’s lips. These close-ups feel existentially driven (Ms. Denis has no use for exposition).


She also received praise for her revelatory use of digital video in AV Club:

Denis exploits the textures of digital just as seductively as she did the grain of celluloid, thanks to the expert eye of regular cinematographer Agnès Godard.


While a couple of critics found Bastards opaque to a fault (Mark Kermode called it “sordid stodge”) others revelled in the depths and complexities of its darkness. Jose Teodoro celebrated the subtle implication of gender in the plot’s grim machinations, in Cinema Scope:

The film’s title evokes fatherlessness, illegitimacy, rot. Indeed, every family in Bastards is broken by male maleficence ... Yet while the men of Bastards, whether sympathetic or nefarious, act in ways that are finally all too comprehensible, the film’s women – Justine, Sandra, Raphaëlle – remain enigmatic, their degree of complicity in the bad business buried in Bastards’ battered heart never made entirely clear.


And in Sight & Sound, Amy Taubin offered a vindicating evaluation of Bastards’ artfully deployed darkness. Like in Alex Majoli’s photography, dense darkness is able to suggest the theatricality of the everyday:

Bastards trades in obscurity. It is the darkest movie – visually, psychologically and spiritually – that Denis has made. It’s also one of the rarest of cinematic objects – a completely contemporary, disturbingly relevant film noir.


Bastards is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to 40+ films throughout the year.