SOUND BITE | Bastards

Bastards declines talkative exposition in favour of unvoiced revelations that deepen the drama’s murky opacity. By Louis Rogers


Besides moody weather and grisly demises, you might associate film noir with wisecracking dialogue. Fast-talking crooks and pithy protagonists make it a pleasingly quotable genre. But you’d be hard pushed to remember a line from Claire Denis’ contemporary Parisian noir Bastards. You’re more likely to find yourself haunted by silent, unhurriedly held images: a fraught, unreadable face; a deserted shoe factory; a birthday cake being smeared with blue icing. 

Bastards is a decidedly taciturn film. At every stage, it declines talkative exposition of its knotty plot in favour of unvoiced revelations that deepen the drama’s murky opacity. This creates a compelling ambiguity: is Claire Denis’s camera dwelling on scenes because they’re significant or precisely because they are not? The crisp cinematography allows us to recognise details such as Marco’s watch on display in a pawn shop window, but brings the same exacting focus to butter being spread on bread or heels being swapped for wellies on a car journey. The film’s grimmest twists are revealed in the same unemphatic manner as its peripheral details. The pervasive quiet allows the narrative to rise organically and disquietingly out of the everyday.

The other ambiguity which Bastards’ silence liberally contributes to is the question of complicity. With the exception of Marco, the protagonist, we have a dim idea of each player’s knowledge or motives, which are concealed behind well-kept veneers of inscrutability. Denis has said she was interested in exploring and even vindicating the passivity of women in particular, suggesting that “passivity in a case like [Raphaelle’s] is brave”. True colours are revealed in the film’s climax for some; others remain obscure. And as for Marco’s sullen silence – which has registered for most of the film as brooding, intelligent intensity – one last, wordless twist exposes the terrible chasm of naivety that lies beneath.


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.