There’s no shortage of bastards in this tale about the destructive power of a deeply dysfunctional family, but if the men inflict most of the violence, the women bear their share of the blame for the damage done. In the Q&A after the press screening, Claire Denis said: “They [women] are victims, for sure, often. But I don’t want a film to give them pity always. I prefer to be fierce with them.” Her story keeps circling back to questions of guilt and personal responsibility, each turn revealing more complications in her characters and their actions.
The beautiful young Justine (Lola Creton), who we see at the beginning and end of the film, and many times in between, in situations of great psychological and physical peril, isn’t just a victim but a wounded warrior who chooses her own fate, at least to some degree (in describing the drugs, alcohol, and rough sex that have landed her in the hospital, a doctor says Justine, “Didn’t spare herself anything”). Her father, who commits suicide at the start of the film, is no passive victim of the family’s pathology, but one of its main perpetrators. Her uncle, Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sea captain, comes home to avenge his family in classic action-hero style only to become a victim himself. And Justine’s mother, Sandra (Julie Bataille), whose emotional torment we initially pity, can also seem monstrous, willing to sacrifice everyone else to satisfy her need to feel blameless.
Marco gives up everything—his career, his savings, even the wristwatch his father gave him—after Sandra calls with a desperate plea for help, moving into a tomb-like apartment building to get close to Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), the mistress of the rich businessman Sandra blames for the destruction of her family. He soon falls for her, taking seriously what she seems to see as a purely sexual fling.
Then again, it’s hard to be sure what Raphaelle thinks. Denis pares down her dialogue to the bone as usual, the snippets of talk she includes lasting just long enough to impart an important fact or feeling, and she wants to keep us guessing about Marco and Raphaelle’s relationship. Agnès Godard’s camera keeps slipping us notes under the table, catching Marco as he eyes Raphaelle guardedly while she dresses impassively after one of their lovemaking sessions, or capturing the wolfish little grin she flashes as she takes in his nicely muscled back and arms while he fixes her son’s bicycle, but we’re never sure where the two stand—and they may not be either.
Making us question our perceptions and assumptions by showing us things we don’t quite understand, another hallmark of Denis’s work, helps create the film’s ominous and omnipresent sense of instability. We may not be sure who sent the men waiting for Marco one night, but the blurred fury of the violence as he fends them off and the hand he damages so badly in the fight that it remains bandaged for a long time afterward leave no doubt about the danger he faces. And the cool electronic score by Stuart Staples and Tindersticks, their seventh for Denis, gives even neutral close-ups the sense of sinuously observed menace that characterizes the film.
Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau keep Marco circling in on the truth—or maybe just running in circles until he meets up with his destiny. A shot from inside a car he drives back from the scene of an orgy where Justine was brutalized feels like a metaphor for the journeys both Marco and his niece are on. The camera puts us in the passenger seat as the car rounds a tight curve—which keeps going and going, lasting so long it feels like one of those Möbius-strip-like staircases in an M.C. Escher drawing.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.