A nihilistic examination of how patriarchy is fundamental to social oppression through the interrogation of defined gender roles, Claire Denis’ Bastards (2013) is a post-modern film noir that feels like observing the world through two black eyes. Paris has never looked so ugly, with Denis shrouding the ornate architecture of the rain-soaked Parisian streets with an oppressive sense of despair. It’s in stark contrast to the sweeping vistas and stifling humidity of her 2009 postcolonial thriller White Material, yet the governing sense of insecurity remains just as potent. Clues are fed to the audience like a trail of breadcrumbs, with French naval officer Marco (Vincent Lindon) our guide through this world of depravity.
The film opens with a suicide and the sight of a young woman – naked except for a pair of high heels – walking down the central reservation of a deserted street. Through Marco we discover the corpse was that of his best friend and brother-in-law; the girl (Lola Crèton), his niece. Through the shadows of a city seemingly trapped in perpetual darkness, Denis leaves subtle hints as to what might have happened, leading Marco to a wealthy businessman and his young trophy wife Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni). Marco rents the apartment above the couple, with his investigation revealing that so far all he’s been told is a series of deceptions and half-truths. There’s a nervous energy running throughout Bastards, with Denis constructing a nightmarish landscape of infidelity, lies and corruption.
A purposefully opaque script, lacking in any form of narrative cadence, only adds to the disorientation, whilst Tinderstick’s haunting electro score echoes the depravity of prior scenes like a series of memories that can’t be forgotten. Dark, dirty and incredibly sordid, Denis’ tight, stringent framing creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of distrust and forces the audience to ask questions they don’t want the answers to. When these answers eventually arrive, it becomes apparent that this isn’t just the bumps and bruises of a society in a decline, but very much one that’s rotten to the core. Denis’ corporeal aesthetic is restricted by the rigid constraints of the noir genre – a style built on sexual motivation and binary representations of gender. Constrained by a brooding ambience and genre limitations, each character embraces their gender roles, acting instinctively and guided entirely by an ingrained sense of what’s ‘right’.
Yet even Marco, the film’s anti-hero, is insincere in his actions, fighting for a family cause whilst failing to pay for his own children’s child support. Marco is a man who has chosen to remove himself from both family and society, yet finds himself unable to separate body and soul. What both he and we as an audience learn is that whilst family can be a supportive structure, it remains corruptible, a product of a repressive patriarchy built on institutionalised class and gender roles designed to contain and control. By transferring her postcolonial narrative into a Greek tragedy masquerading as a noir, Denis has rendered a devastating portrait of the roots of societal malaise; a world where love, honour and decency are devoid of value, irrefutably affirmed by Bastards’ shocking and unforgettable finale.
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