There’s little or no love in the world of Claire Denis’ Bastards (2013) – just the evil within and the wilderness without. It’s a bleak vision of society as a festering cesspool. Isolation is the only antidote; any form of human connection is a compromise that gradually wears away at the beholder’s humanity. The bones of Denis’ story – the returning hero on a mission – verge on the classical, but it’s beaten and corroded into ellipsis. Bastards’ nihilistic opacity may have alienated some, but it’s a brilliant work of rigorous intellect and elemental force. It’s a hugely accomplished film that easily sits in the top tier of Denis’ oeuvre.
Vincent Lindon plays Marco, a captain in the merchant navy who gives up his self-imposed exile at sea to return home to Paris to untangle the mess of his sister’s life after her husband’s suicide. He speaks of the family bloodline as if it’s a poison, and one could read Bastards as Marco’s attempt to cure it. He divests himself of the clutter of modern life to embark on his perilous task. Told he won’t be able to return to the sea to work anytime soon, he needs to dive into hell to find some salvation for his family. He’s like Orpheus going into the underworld to save Eurydice; he understands he may never get back up, but takes the risk regardless. This is the Paris beneath our noses; the grimy rot under the city’s bourgeois veneer.
Marco’s apartment is a typically ornate Parisian flat, but he keeps it bare, with just a bed and a computer. He’s like a soldier, uneasy in his new surroundings, but ready to move at a second’s notice. The city’s inhabitants are monsters, either by intention or omission, and Marco moves quietly among them in the hope of saving his niece, Justine (Lola Creton). She is the silent victim of unspeakable evil. Barely alive, she spends the duration of the film in a traumatised daze. Justine is both Marco’s goal and talisman, but she’s also at the heart of Bastards’ raison d’etre; a stark personification of the separation of body and soul.
The film’s descent into the recesses of depravity recalls the oppressive clamour of Requiem for a Dream (2000). Yet, where Aronofsky’s elaborate grotesquerie was geared to bludgeon the senses, Denis’ carefully calibrated horror numbs them. It’s a downward spiral, but the lack of linear cohesion keeps the viewer in the dark about where it’s headed. Redemption often feels within reach for the characters, but the pull of fate becomes stronger as we’re drawn from the familial nucleus of the city, to a barren, forbidding farmhouse at the far reaches of the suburbs. It’s there that Bastards’ emotional wilderness meets the temporal hinterland. The finale is calculated to stun; it will haunt you for weeks.
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