The world of Claire Denis’s Bastards is one of nightmarish inversion, where compassion has no place and connection only breeds despair. Structured around the fracturing of two family units, one irreparably shattered, one holding firm despite intense pressure, it imagines life as a steady succession of denials, duty waging a futile struggle against desire. In this reckoning every image grows twisted, the seductive mirage of a naked woman in high heels soon tarnished by the blood trickling down her legs. Conditioning the audience to find dread in every seemingly innocent gesture, the film turns even the simplest touch between family members into something tinged with menace.
Shooting in digital for the first time, Denis uses the freedom of the format to plunge into the dark depths of a complicated revenge fantasy, one whose murky outlines only gradually come into focus. There’s the hazy outline of a hero, with Vincent Lindon as Marco Silvestri, a ship captain who returns to land after a non-specified but clearly gruesome family tragedy. He literally drops everything to aid his sister’s family, despite obvious disdain for her, as well as the knowledge that her now-deceased husband—his former best friend—played an active role in these appalling events. Marco shows definite fondness toward his innocent, victimized niece (a nearly silent Lola Créton), but his motives remain mostly mysterious, as he occupies an empty apartment next to the home of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a wealthy businessman who functions as the film’s main figure of evil.
Marco eventually embarks on a torrid affair with Laporte’s wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), either as a vague overture toward vengeance or just to fill his otherwise empty hours. Confusion is essential to this torrid atmosphere, and the combination of bewildered characters and messy situations creates a feverish climate which recalls both the elliptical obliqueness of The Intruder and the dreamy tone of Friday Night. The narrative flow is generally linear, aside from a few fleeting images that serve as a running motif, but Denis’s stinginess with information, which is withheld from both audience and characters, allows for an additional layer of mystification. This results in a noirish unspooling of narrative reveals, as each new disclosure further disabuses our hero of the heroic nature of his quest, revealing ever-fouler layers of rot.
Unsure of how to behave, the characters cling to ingrained gender roles, acting in response to their perceived demands rather than immediate moral imperatives. Meanwhile, there’s a counter-focus on perversion of these same roles, particularly through a skin-crawling incest subplot, which sets the stage for one of the most disturbing final scenes in recent cinematic memory. The conflict between lust and obligation establishes Bastards as a mosaic portrait of people driven by base impulses they can’t fully understand, be they sexual urges (illicit or otherwise), alpha-male brutishness, or den-mother defensiveness.
Men at first seem to be the actors here, striding purposefully around a world controlled by their poisonous, domineering sexuality. Yet that same influence is eventually revealed as feeble and incomplete, with female characters who are equally capable of decisive action. Never one to leave her female characters as mere persecuted victims, Denis goes to great lengths here to implicate each of them in the nastiness that occurs. Bastards climaxes with two bits of sudden violence, each heroic in one sense, completely misguided in another, and both contribute greatly to a heady feeling of moral disorientation. This sense persists long after the film ends, leaving behind an assortment of searing, totemic images (a crushed car, a burnt ear of corn, those bloody legs) which stand out as haunting reminders of its grim nocturnal landscape.