A man commits suicide. A young woman (Lola Créton) stumbles down a dark Paris street bleeding and in the nude except for high heels. The suicide is her father. Desperate for aid, her mother Sandra (Julie Bataille) calls her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sailor, for support. Marco soon learns what caused the discord: loan shark Edouard (Michel Subor) wants to bleed the family dry. As these revelations accumulate Marco will bed Edouard’s lover Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and, naturally, fall in love.
The miracle of direct TV allowed me to rewind at several key moments when I’d lost the plot to Bastards, in which Claire Denis both purifies her approach to filmmaking to such white-hot fervor that coherence is immolated. A director of sharp, ruthless elisions, Denis values gesture, action. Disinterest in narrative that isn’t comprised of privileged moments has produced Chocolat, Beau Travail, and the too little appreciated Trouble No More but also leads to a film like Bastards, so stylized that her devotion to frustrating my responses is laudable up to a point. The stylization affects the actors; they don’t perform so much as give good face, which in the case of Vincent Lindon is an advantage. In closeup Lindon is wrathful and unyielding; he glowers like a grizzled hybrid of Jean-Paul Belmondo and William Holden. But the situation has no resonance beyond Denis’ skill. It’s a movie dominated by shadows and furtive movements; she delights in the tension between the characters’ hidden motives and the picture’s quicksilver pace and shard-like scenes. The suicide of Sandra’s husband Denis discards like a read telegram: a bike in the woods, slit wrists. Also, Denis is attuned to sex and cruelty that places her in a lineage with Claude Chabrol and Guy de Maupassant, both of whom also specialized in terseness. For example: Raphaelle notices Marco’s back muscles tensing through a white shirt as he crouches to repair a bicycle chain. What a relief for a director to eroticize men; as far back as Chocolat Denis exoticizes them too; they’re as strange and beautiful as creatures in the Mariana Trench.
In its last quarter Bastards outfools itself. The repulsive old coot who is supposed to be villainous because he snarls “Jerk me off” to his lover does the sort of thing for which Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth wouldn’t have needed nitrous oxide for laughter. A chic and rather absurd film, Bastards should nevertheless still be seen by admirers of narrative economy. Just remember F.O. Matthiessen’s line about decadent art: a creation in which parts subsume whole.