Claire Denis douses Bastards in her usual oblique dreaminess, equal parts romantic and malevolent, shot by Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard in inky nocturnal HD that posits the proceedings as a gradual descent into a black hole of vengeance and vice. Yet that style can’t fully compensate for a tale that, underneath its gorgeous affectations, proves undercooked, especially during a third act that provides duly titillating answers to its initially beguiling mysteries.
Up until that deflating denouement, however, Denis’s latest generates suspense via a terse narrative mode in which every scene seems to have been distilled to its fundamental element—characters moving and acting with deliberate intent, and expressing fury and desire with brutal candor. Co-written with longtime collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, her story is a hallucinatory genre exercise cast in a mold similar to that of Olivier Assayas’s 2002 Demonlover, another sleekly modern neo-noir about the entwined bond between corporate malice and carnal deviance.
In its narrative outline, Bastards is pure pulp. 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). Further complicating matters, Sandra’s teen daughter, Justine (Lola Créton), is in the hospital after an attempted suicide brought about by what a doctor (Alex Descas) claims has been severe sexual abuse. Marco’s immediate response to this chaos is to move into the apartment building where Laporte’s younger mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), lives. Through means that never seem to make sense—from his balcony, he drops a shirt filled with soap in front of her, thus initiating contact in the most inexplicably random way possible—the two soon strike up a steamy affair, even as Marco continues to keep his true identity a secret.
If their relationship seems almost preposterously sudden, Lindon and Mastroianni sell it well, he a figure of silent masculine determination and drive, she a wounded yet tough pseudo-femme fatale torn between lust for her new lover and loyalty to her domineering old one. With the steely gaze of a crocodile on the hunt, Subor’s Laporte casts an omnipresent shadow over Bastards. As such, the callous cruelty with which he eventually treats Raphaëlle comes not as a surprise but a fate preordained—merely one more example of the fatalism that encircles all of these characters, doomed by a depraved world rotting from the inside out.
Denis establishes her scenario in long stretches of silence and with a plethora of jarring cuts that create a mood of dissonant ambiguity. Her visuals have a stark beauty that enhances the increasingly inescapable feeling that everything is headed toward some unholy abyss. That notion becomes overpowering once Marco discovers that Justine’s troubles originated at a remote farmhouse where a sleazy couple have built a bring-your-own-camera-and-toys sex room that was frequented by the girl and others close to her. Those spaces hold closely guarded secrets, and for its first two thirds, Bastards intrigues through its storytelling sparseness, allowing nagging questions to hang in the air, kept afloat by pervasive suggestions that financial and lascivious domination and greed are the root causes of everyone’s misfortune.
Marco’s actual motivations, and the twisted truth underlying his relatives’ sordid relationship to Laporte, remain indistinct for long stretches, as Godard’s sumptuous camerawork—full of gorgeous shadows and constricting spaces—and Tindersticks’s ominous electronica score imply terror and chaos just up ahead. When revelations do finally materialize, 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 guilt.
Those themes resonate passionately in the moment, but lose a good deal of their vitality by the finale, which reveals Bastards to be, at heart, more than a bit ridiculous. That’s most true of a last scene that aims for gut-wrenching horror but instead comes across as cheaply and ludicrously sensationalistic, its wannabe-shocking closing note too B-movie for a saga that, up to that point, had affected loftier pretenses. The cracks in Denis’s atmosphere-over-all-else plotting, however, truly start to show shortly before that, with a climactic tragedy coming off as a contrived thematic device, given that it all could have been avoided if two characters had just chosen to have a single, contextually reasonable conversation.