Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE BASTARDS SLEEP WELL (Claire Denis' Bastards @ NYFF)

Its no mystery that PINNLAND EMPIRE is the kindest place on the web for all things Claire Denis-related. Part of me wishes that her latest film was bad so you all wouldn't think I was just blindly praising her work but Bastards was really good in my opinion. Denis' latest film is like one of those creepy dreams that stays with you for the entire day leaving you feeling slightly disoriented. It's not exactly a nightmare but nothing you wake up smiling about. And like any dream, there is no traditional beginning or end. We're just thrown right in to the story and we're not exactly sure how we got there.
Bastards is a neo-noir revenge story/family drama about a naval captain; "Marco" (Vincent Lindon) who returns home to help his sister; "Sandra" (Julie Bataille) whose fallen on some incredibly hard times. Sandra's husband (who was once Marco's friend) has just committed suicide and her daughter, Marco's niece, was brutally raped and the same man; "Edouard Laporte" (Michel Subor), is possibly responsible for both tragic events.
Although Claire Denis denied that Bastards has any underlying messages about capitalism or corporate greed, Edouard Laporte is a powerful businessman who triggers the suicide of a smaller/struggling businessman (Sandra's husband). One can't help but still think that on some level this film applies to issues like "The 99% vs. The 1%" or the unfair distribution and/or misuse of power in different parts of the world. These aren't the typical issues that Denis focuses on so that could just be me reaching.

This is another "family affair" with Denis regulars; Gregoire Colin, Michel Subor, Alex Descas, Florence Loire Caille, Agnes Goddard, Jean-Pol Fargeau & The Tindersticks all appearing in front of or behind the camera in some fashion. This also marks the second collaboration between Vincent Lindon & Denis since Friday Night (2002). 
There's even "extended family" in Bastards with the presence of Lola Creton whose relationship with Olivier Assayas, Denis' friend, probably had something to do with her being cast in this (Creton co-starred in Assayas' last film; Something In The Air and she also starred in Goodbye My First Love which was directed by Assayas' girlfriend Mia Hansen-Love). And I don't mean to downplay Creton's natural acting ability or screen presence by saying she was only cast due to some kind of "cinematic nepotism". It's the same thing with other actors. Bastards co-star; Alex Descas, who is Claire Denis' most frequent collaborator, is one of my favorite actors but I'm sure his relationship with Olivier Assayas is an extension of his relationship with Denis (Descas has co-starred in three of Assayas' films). Creton's performance is both haunting & heartbreaking at the same time...

The French love William Faulkner. And its no mystery that Claire Denis, who is obviously French, is heavily influenced by books & literature. Some of her best work is adapted from or inspired by books - Beau Travail (1999) is a loose adaptation of Billy Buddy and both; Friday Night (2002) & The Intruder (2004) are adapted from books/essays, so it doesn't come as too much of a surprise that elements of Bastards draws heavily from Faulkner's writing (specifically Sanctuary). In Bastards, one of the characters is violated sexually with a piece of corn and eventually tries to go back to the very same person who abused her. For those that aren't familiar with Faulkner's Sanctuary, one of the most alarming scenarios in the story involves one of the characters (Temple) getting raped & violated with a piece of corn which opens up her dark side and pulls her in to a world of sexual abuse & prostitution. Even the basic plot of Bastards; the lone male character going home to be with his sister who eventually gets caught up in a series of tragic events, is a play on Sanctuary. 

Based on this review so far one might think Claire Denis has gone back to that dark side we saw in films like I Can't Sleep (1994) and Trouble Everyday (2001). To a certain degree that's true. Bastards, which couldn't have a more appropriate title as almost every male character in the film is very much a bastard, has some of the same frightening sexual aggression found in Trouble Everyday along with the same dark/moody atmosphere (thanks in part to The Tindersticks' score). But Bastards also feels like a loose sequel to The Intruder with its somewhat dreamy/non-linear structure (it should be noted that both; Bastards & The Intruder were written by Jon-Pol Fargeau). 
As I've said on here before, its difficult to talk/write about one Denis film without mentioning two or three of her previous films in the process. Her filmography has this invisible continuous thread that ties all her work together. In Bastards, Michel Subor plays an evil businessman but he could very well be the same self centered, mildly unpleasant character that he played almost a decade ago in Denis' The Intruder (the same picture of Michel Subor as a young man that we see in Beau Travail is used again in Bastards). Vincent Lindon's quietly edgy character in Bastards could easily be the same mysterious guy he played years ago in Denis' Friday Night. Much like The Intruder, Bastards has a plot but its more about the feelings you get from the images & isolated scenes placed in front of you. I honestly feel like the plot isn't the most important element here. Denis kinda makes this clear in the way she structures the film - the story does intentionally jump out of order at times (although not in a chaotic way but rather in a more organic & seamless way), some of the dialogue between the characters is extremely familiar (at times it feels like we're thrown in to the middle of a conversation that we should already have the inside dirt on), the moody music is just as important to the film's atmosphere as the acting or cinematography (a completely separate write-up could be done on The Tindersticks' score as they've adopted a slightly new electronic/computerized sound this time around) and, in true Claire Denis fashion, a lot of important information in the film is conveyed through hints & implications rather than traditional straightforward dialogue (although quite a bit of important information is laid out for the audience pretty clearly in the film's 8mm-esque ending).

Faulkner's books & Denis' own previous works aren't the only influences found in Bastards. If you refer to the interview she gave here on PINNLAND EMPIRE earlier this year, Denis mentions Akira Kurosawa & Toshiro Mifune as an influence. Vincent Lindon's motivation for revenge is somewhat similar to Mifune's in Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (seeking revenge on a corrupt businessman for the death of a family member). And apparently part of Bastards is based on a true story that Denis read about in the news involving a woman who was beaten, raped & left for dead on the side of the road by sex traffickers. In one scene Lola Creton is seen walking naked in the middle of the street at night with blood dripping between her legs which is very reminiscent of a scene in Elim Klimov's Come & See. Bastards is obviously not an autobiographical film but at the same time it feels like we're watching all the random thoughts and feelings that go on inside Claire Denis' head - newspaper articles, books, cinema, music, and unfinished ideas that still deserve to be shared with others. 
In my opinion, Bastards isn't as dark as some people were making it out to be but there are a few moments that may cause you to go; "oh shit." (honestly, if the implication of sodomy with a corn cob doesn't make you squirm in the least bit then something may be wrong with you).

If I had to quickly sum up the character of Marco I guess I'd call him an anti-hero. But if you wanted to go a little deeper I'd use the term, coined by Claire Denis collaborator Alice Houri; "Good Bastard". Yes, Marco is the protagonist of the story but he isn't the traditional good guy we unconditionally root for. His actions are sometimes questionable and his thoughts are dark. But if my brother-in law's suicide was triggered by the same person behind my niece's rape, I might go on a quest for revenge knowing the information that Marco knows. Marco is yet another imperfect character in a long line of Claire Denis characters that we either like or feel sorry for at first then eventually come to dislike or want no part of (like Richard Courcet in I Can't Sleep or Vincent Gallo in Trouble Everyday) or one of those characters we dislike at first but come to feel sorry for later on (like Alex Descas in No Fear No Die or Denis Lavant in Beau Travail). At the Q&A for Bastards Claire Denis compared Vincent Lindon's performance to James Caan in Thief but in my opinion I found Caan to be somewhat childish at times, bordering on being dumb & hot-headed in certain scenarios (when it came to criminal activity however, Caan was intelligent & badass). Marco/Lindon is a lot more methodical and cool-headed to be compared to Caan in Thief.
Michel Subor also gave a noteworthy performance as "the villain". His loyalty to Claire Denis is profound. He seems to only ever act in her movies these days. Subor has the same swagger as that of Takeshi Kitano in that he can play a good bad guy, a bad good guy or a bad bad guy (like in Bastards) with such ease. His ability to casually play such a quietly evil person in Bastards makes me want to see him collaborate with other European filmmakers like Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat or even Gaspar Noe.

If you're a fan of Denis' darker side, the new french extremity, 8mm, or films that fall under that "Sketchbook Cinema" genre I've been writing about recently (Uncle Boonmee..., Post Tenebras Lux, etc) then this film is absolutely something you'll dig. If you're not a fan of moody non-linear cinema then maybe its best to stay away from Bastards and avoid yourself the frustration. This is some advice that critics failed to mention in their early reviews of the film after it played at Cannes in May. There's nothing more frustrating for me than reading a review of a Claire Denis film written by someone who clearly doesn't understand her work or is still expecting her to make another Beau Travail. Bastards got some early negative press because it was essentially reviewed against & compared to films it played alongside in this years' festival circuit like; Blue Is The Warmest Color & Twelve Years A Slave which couldn't be any more different from each other. If you're gonna put Bastards up against something at least compare it to the appropriate films (The Intruder, Trouble Everyday, Uncle Boonmee, etc).


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