Love and Anger
by Andrew Tracy

Dir. Claire Denis, France, IFC Films/Sundance Selects

Considering the brutality and terror so often on view in her films, it’s strangely comforting to return to the cinema of Claire Denis. Many a filmmaker in this brand-conscious age has cultivated a style to be recognized; Denis creates a world to be inhabited. I well recall, while first encountering the gorgeous opening of 2009’s White Material—a nocturnal, headlight-illuminated traveling shot from the hood of a car rumbling down an African road, wild dogs flitting like phantoms across the path ahead—the contented internal sigh I breathed, the instant pleasure of being “back here,” even as the film’s symbolic schema felt atypically mechanical for an artist who has cultivated such a rich and genuine ambiguity in her work. Familiarity can breed contempt, to coin a phrase, perhaps especially from critics who can score filmmakers equally for staying within their previously trod territory or for striking out in new directions. It’s one of Denis’s great strengths that the very familiarity of her world, in its textures and rhythms, its faces and bodies, never precludes surprise—surprise not as in the expertly and coldly engineered shocks of a Haneke, but a productive indeterminacy, a flexibility of intent and meaning.

No surprise then, Bastards’ atmospheric opening—a shimmering sheet of rain, a middle-aged man dressing in a dimly lit room, a naked girl in high heels walking down a dark street—carries that same pleasurable rush of recognition even as it is quite purposefully and mystifyingly oblique, and is quietly, resoundingly beautiful even as that same man lies dead in the street barely ninety seconds later. Stanley Kauffmann wrote, apropos Shohei Imamura’s lushly filmed 1979 serial-killer opus Vengeance Is Mine, “the world doesn’t look any less pretty when skull-bashings and stabbings take place”; likewise, Denis’s world never ceases to be beautiful despite the horrors it can contain. And it’s a disturbing testament to her artistry that the most plangent impression left by Bastards is of its beauty, even as it is ultimately her most horrifying film since the cannibal holocaust that is 2001’s Trouble Every Day—indeed, in its considerably more far-reaching implications, perhaps even more so. Where that earlier film maudit provocatively charted the borders between carnality and carnage, in this more (deceptively) accessible film that adopts some of the outer shape of a thriller, Denis presents a fusion of familial love—love inevitably tinged with narcissism, neglect, resentment, or what have you, but love real and felt all the same—and the most sickening, exploitative violation.

It’s ironic, or perhaps harmonic, that Bastards’ early scenes following that striking opening feature Nicole Dogué (as a police inspector) and Alex Descas (as the head of a sanitarium), last seen together in Denis’ 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum. Not only does the tight-knit family circle they belonged to in that film patently contrast with the fractured clan at the center of Bastards, but also the conscious decisions that, in Rum, resolve the incipient familial crisis—a slight but crucial shifting of that family’s configuration to prevent its close bonds from becoming suffocating—pave Bastards’ road to Hell. The dead man, as Denis reveals in some atypically speedy exposition, is Jacques (Laurent Grevill), the president of a now bankrupt shoe factory, which he ran with his now widow Sandra (Julie Bataille). In her postmortem interview with Dogué’s cop, the embittered Sandra spits out an accusation at one Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a powerful businessman whom she claims financially ruined her husband and directly precipitated his suicide. More, it seems that this devil she knows has spread his corruption even further down the family tree: Sandra charges that Laporte turned her daughter Justine (Lola Créton)—soon revealed as the nude girl of the opening—into his “sexual plaything,” leading to her confinement in hospital under the care of Descas’s doctor, where she is undergoing physical and psychological convalescence to recover from a punishing diet of alcohol and drugs, and a brutal sexual assault.

Her fortunes wrecked and her family ravaged, Sandra is poised to become the Electra of this tragedy, but she instead turns to a vicar for her vengeance: her estranged brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), who had long ago foregone his share of the family business and estate for a life in the Merchant Marine. Abandoning his command when word reaches him of his brother-in-law’s death, Marco arrives in Paris to Sandra’s tales of Laporte’s crimes and the pathetic sight of the bedridden Justine, who, as Descas’s doctor flatly and chillingly informs him, may require surgery “to repair her vagina.” Out of a job, and with two daughters of his own from a previous marriage to support, Marco cashes in those few valuable possessions his spartan lifestyle has afforded him to sustain both his extended family and himself, as he moves into a flat above Laporte’s mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and her young son by the elderly magnate to pursue an enigmatic revenge against the “bastard”—which he initiates by ingratiating himself with the boy and seducing his mother.

Kent Jones, among others, has linked Laporte to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and while Denis keeps things typically elliptical there is never really any doubt that Laporte deserves the titular epithet that Marco mutters at him, as he observes the aged billionaire lovingly squiring his child off in a chauffeured car while Marco’s niece lies ravaged in a hospital bed. Endowed as he is with Subor’s craggy yet eerily marble-smooth countenance, Laporte could be a veritable caricature of the rapacious capitalist, or the King of the Lizard Men—corruption and perversion positively ooze from him, evident in everything from his bedside manner (“Jerk me off,” he says in his very first appearance, as he climbs into bed with Raphaelle), to the courtly but commanding way he tells his mistress to bring him a Perrier along with his coffee, to the slight but repellently smug wave of his hand as he comments on the “Haussmannian” spaciousness of the apartment he has set her up in.

Yet while Bastards can credibly be read as a seething growl of rage at a plutocracy whose private sins, no less than their public, exist on a plane seemingly free of punishment, Denis is teasing out an even more complex, and more pervasive, matrix of materialism and desire. Even as its protagonist’s arc through the film is, seemingly, one of loss—first seen divesting himself of his navy dress whites as he leaves behind his command and chosen life, Marco subsequently surrenders all those other markers of his self (watch, car, life insurance) for a family which, as Denis gradually, terribly reveals, does not warrant his sacrifice—Bastards, like Bresson’s L’argent, is built upon a ceaseless pattern of material exchange, a pattern that constitutes both its narrative movement and that narrative’s emotional undercurrents. Just as 35 Shots of Rum made a simple rice cooker into a richly symbolic talisman of unspoken feelings, in Bastards objects are loci of love amorous (a white shirt which precipitates a passionate sexual encounter; a watch which, reclaimed from a jeweller’s, speaks to a deepening of that carnal connection), comradely (a car Marco exchanges to a friend for needed cash, later returned with no strings attached), and paternal (a winter coat Marco presents to his visiting daughter). Objects also become almost Hellenically tragic heralds of doom (the patriarchal gun which Sandra bequeaths to Marco, declaring “You’ll need this”) and the most hideously imaginable implements of violation (the blood-stained ear of corn which Marco retrieves from the rural den of vice where Justine suffered her traumatic encounter).

Acutely alive as she is to the sensuous textures of the everyday, Denis is not rolling a reductive anti-materialist critique into her anti-capitalist broadside. The pleasure which the rarely ashore Marco clearly derives from barreling his vintage vehicle along the autoroute; the pictured sailboat with which his former shipmate still pursues his love of the sea; the gift of the coat, which does not banish the memory of Marco and his daughter’s previous tiff but expresses the occasionally exasperated but enduring love that undergirds their relationship—these are not intrinsically infected with the corruption of the Laportes and their ilk. Marco’s fatal flaw, or rather oversight, is not that he refuses to recognize himself in his quarry, but that he cannot conceive that the unquestioned bastard he pursues could either harbor or inspire the love he himself feels. “There was never any love,” Marco insists to Raphaelle in postcoital repose, “He [Laporte] treats you like his whore.” “No,” she replies, “He gave me a confidence I never thought I could have.” (That this dimension of her character is not truly evident onscreen has, I think, less to do with authorial intent than hazy dramaturgy: despite Mastroianni’s sensitive and sympathetic performance, Raphaelle remains a rather unformed character, her attraction to Marco more a matter of inference—a room of one’s own, away from the bought-and-paid-for existence with which Laporte has provided her?—than full realization.)

No less than Renoir, Denis is aware that everyone has their reasons, but her generosity is of a less comforting variety. Some of my colleagues have suggested that Laporte’s intimacy with his son foretells a violation as horrible as that visited upon Justine; I prefer, in what I think is an even more disturbing reading, to think that Laporte’s genuine if insidiously proprietary devotion to his own “seed” (as he denotes the boy in a letter to Raphaelle) in no way precludes the coexistence of an utter lack of concern for the progeny of anyone else—or, indeed, anyone else in the first place. “I will take whatever steps I think necessary to protect my son from his sick family,” Laporte writes to Raphaelle after discovering Marco’s identity. “I’m glad I divorced. My daughters won’t be contaminated,” says Marco, unconsciously echoing Laporte as he viciously rebukes the prostrate Sandra upon discovering the depth of his family’s complicity in their own despoliation. As in Faulkner (to whose Sanctuary Denis turned to for inspiration), the diseased roots of the family tree eventually destroy even the noblest of its branches—but “sickness,” here, is less diagnosis than proximate position in the hierarchy of power. As per Tolstoy, Denis’s unhappy family is unhappy in a way very much its own. But theirs is an unhappy family that has allowed their weaknesses to turn them into coerced but consenting prey to the most monstrously exploitative desires, desires for which money—the power it grants, the protection it affords—is both means of realization and a conditioning element of their formulation. For what else does money do but expand the range of possibilities we can conceive of for ourselves?

Corruption, as with most things in Denis’s world, is not a contamination of the once pure, but a complicit surrender to (or activation of) those impure elements within us that exist, frighteningly untroubled, alongside our better elements; it is not fate, but freedom of choice that has the power to damn us. It’s thus that the final, video played-back images of Bastards—less graphic, and immeasurably more horrifying, than even the penultimate locker room scene in Trouble Every Day—are simultaneously extraneous and essential; “essential” if we concede, as we should, that an artist of Denis’s caliber and control is not visiting this upon us for the simple motives of shock, or as some testament to her “unflinching” “bravery.” Narratively, these images tell us little that has not already been disclosed; there is no surprise here, yet Denis explicitly insists that we witness this unspeakable act. (“Will you watch with me?” Sandra asks Descas’s doctor, this damned world’s nearest equivalent to a moral compass, as he gives her the USB key which houses the incriminating footage; “Yes,” he avers quietly as the elevator doors close on them.) Worse even than the already foretold act, though, is the manner of its enactment: without desire, and with love. That money can make love complicit in its own violation, that it can make bastards of us all, is the most damning indictment Denis could ever deliver upon it.