Claire Denis douses Bastards in her usual oblique dreaminess, equal parts romantic and malevolent, yet that style can’t fully compensate for a tale that, underneath its gorgeous aesthetic affectations, proves frustratingly undercooked. After the suicide of his brother-in-law, tanker captain Marco (a grave, intense Vincent Lindon) abandons ship and returns home to help sister Sandra (Julie Bataille), who blames her husband’s death on his renowned business partner Laporte (Michel Subor), and whose daughter Justine (Lola Créton) has attempted suicide after what a doctor (Alex Descas) claims has been severe sexual abuse.
Working from a screenplay co-written by Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis establishes her scenario – which also involves Marco striking up a relationship with Laporte’s baby mama Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), into whose apartment building he moves – in long stretches of silence and with jarring cuts that create a mood of dissonant mystery.
Marco’s actual motivations, and the twisted truth underlying his relatives’ relationship to Laporte, remain indistinct for long stretches of Bastards, as longtime collaborator Agnès Godard’s sumptuous nocturnal cinematography – full of gorgeous shadows and constricting spaces – and Stuart A. Staples’ ominous electronica score suggest terror and chaos just up ahead. When the revelations do come, they cast the film as a nightmarish reverie about the ugly violence of love and sex, and the impotent futility of revenge sought out of abandonment guilt.
Those themes resonate passionately in the moment, but as answers pile up, so too do the cracks in Denis’ atmosphere-over-all-else plotting, to the point that the story’s climactic tragedy ultimately comes off as a thematic device, given that it all could have been avoided if two characters had just chosen to have a single, contextually reasonable conversation beforehand.