A Family Affair
by Brody Rossiter
Opening with the startling image of a naked young women steadily walking down a gloomy Parisian street, Claire Denis’ contemporary noir, Bastards (Les salauds), leaves little to the imagination while exhibiting its visceral visual style. Nevertheless, when it comes to revealing the circumstances behind such startling and abrasive visions, little is divulged, resulting in a sometimes frustrating yet deeply hypnotic and disorientating tale of vengeance.
Following the suicide of his brother-in-law and the collapse of his sister’s business – both traumas the result of a shady tycoon’s unscrupulous actions – oil-tanker captain, Marco (Vincent Lindo) goes AWOL and travels back to Paris to patch his decaying family back together. Marco’s niece is the youthful yet clearly disturbed woman depicted navigating Paris after dark in only a pair of high heels. Doctors tell Marco that she has suffered traumatic bouts of sexual assault and torture. His sister tells him that Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) is not only responsible for her dead husband’s debts, but her daughter’s mental and physical trauma.
Marco moves into a large, unfurnished apartment above Laporte’s dysfunctional attempt at building a family. He quickly flaunts his masculinity over Laporte’s beautiful and isolated mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), promptly enacting his first degree of revenge and claiming her as his own through choreographed acts of kindness (fixing her son’s bike and gifting cigarettes when the tabac’s neon light is extinguished). The following interactions between Marco and Raphaelle provide the picture’s only moments of tenderness, albeit an erotically charged and strangely nihilistic series of sexual encounters bookmarked by violence and tradgedy.
Paris is stripped of its beauty, its colour and vibrancy. Its prominent skyline perpetually severed from the frame as tight close-ups descend into stark apartments and linger upon characters’ twitching muscular forms as they dominate the screen. Such scenes are washed out with an ugly grey filter – an unfamiliar palette when considering the romantic capital. A reprieve from the harshness is sporadically offered by the sun’s rays as they pierce a hole through the darkness and temporarily banish the shadows. However, Bastards’ starkness is always present, its severity washing over characters in great waves before receding into the bleak near future.
There is knowingness on the part of Denis when considering the vagueness of her collected imagery. To some this grandiose and grim collage of blanketed bodies, bloodied implements and writhing appendages may prove deeply provocative and challenging, to others, pretentious and underdeveloped. Yet to accuse the director of not committing to her unique style of storytelling would be unjust; there’s clearly a distinct vision it just lacks linearity and transparency. The audience’s gaze becomes that of the weary characters onscreen. We see what they see yet remain unaware of the intentions which rest behind these lingering glances.