Cinema Review: Bastards


DIR/: Claire Denis  WRI: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Claire Denis • PRO: Brahim Chioua, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Théry-Lapiney   DOP: Agnès Godard ED: Annette Dutertre   MUS: Stuart Staples   DES: Michel Barthélémy   CAST: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille

Bastards is one of those films that really makes you think hard about just what its title is referring to. Is it a reflection on the story and how it focuses on the suffering of children who have terrible fathers? Perhaps it’s meant in the modern sense of the word because, make no mistake, many of the characters in this story are just plain awful human beings. Then again, maybe it’s simply a pre-emptive label it’s giving itself because it knows just what its audience may want to call the people who made it once they’ve seen it.

It’s difficult to give a quick summary of this film because the very, VERY slow teasing out of the plot seems to be the entire point and it almost feels like ‘spoiling’ things to give away anything more than a setup. On the other hand, this is the game the film wants you to play and it’s tempting to not indulge it. Anyway…Bastards is a drama which begins with the apparent suicide of the owner of a financially struggling shoe-factory. Even just saying that feels like a plot spoiler because you only learn his profession about a third of the way through and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of trying to give a basic description of this film without ruining the ‘fun’ of experiencing it. Suffice to say the lives of two families become intimately intertwined as the story of sex, betrayal and revenge unfolds.

The obvious comparison film would be something like Memento, a ‘puzzle-film’ that wears its obfuscation with pride. The difference is, while Memento’s structure screamed ‘look how clever I am’, it ultimately was used in service of a twist which turned the story on its head once said twist was revealed. There is no such justification given at the end of Bastards to make the needlessly difficult journey seem worthwhile. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t interesting, rather it simply fails to amount to much in comparison to how difficult it was to reach a point where you have any idea of just what the hell is going on.

The way the story is told is, on a technical level at least, inventive. The film is made almost entirely of reaction scenes to exposition you’re never shown so that the game becomes: guess what the person’s current behaviour tells you about what they were told/just learned in a scene you didn’t see. A novel concept but one which undeniably starts to wear out its welcome before too long. A story told in this manner walks a fine line between intrigue and frustration and despite the film’s best attempts at elicit the former, the latter eventually wins out. This could have been avoided if the mystery the film’s tiptoeing around was ultimately more satisfying or impactful. While there are attempts to shock (I think I’ll safely be adding ‘ears of corn’ to the list of everyday items I can’t look at anymore thanks to films) they come off more as lazy attempts to hold your interest instead of meaningful additions to the story.

Another, much milder, irritation is that if this is indeed a puzzle film, it’s one that finishes with a few pieces left over. There’s a brief cutaway scene early on which makes no sense at the time but for all intents and purposes looks like a flash-forward or perhaps some kind of premonition. Yet by the end of the film, the plot seems reasonably well resolved (there’s always a certain amount of ambiguity in these types of films) but that scene has no apparent place. And if it is meant to be a scene that takes place after the events we’ve been shown, there’s a huge ‘scene missing’ that could literally contain anything that would be needed to give it some kind of context.

The frustration of the actual viewing experience and the general sense of “that’s it?” you can’t help but feel when it’s all over somewhat overshadows everything else. The film is very well acted with some great, intense performances from Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni. Additionally it’s quite nicely shot; occasionally indulging in some very beautiful landscape shots and, at maybe two points, even enters slightly surrealist and Lynchian territory. These moments are short-lived though and the film’s main focus always remains its drip-fed story and attempts to intrigue. It doesn’t entirely fail at what it sets out to do but given how clever the writing is (in theory) it’s ultimately far more forgettable and pedestrian than it should be.

Richard Drumm
83  mins

Bastards is released on 14th February 2014

Bastards– Official Website




DIR/WRI: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud • PRO: Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antoine Robert • DOP: Darius Khondji • ED: Stéphane Roche • DES: Marisa Musy • CAST: (Voice) Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Iggy Pop, Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands

From the popular graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is a tour de force, an animated coming-of-age tale about a young girl growing up in Iran, based on its author Marjane Satrapi’s life story. Framing the narrative are transitional airport scenes set in the present day, which ultimately carry a strong symbolism of being uprooted, and constantly in limbo, whether Marji (as she’s affectionately known) opts to return to Iran or stay as an exile in the West.

The main story begins with Marji as a small, feisty child, obsessed with Bruce Lee and wide-eyed about the political persecution of her uncles. As the political situation escalates into a full-blown revolution, with the toppling of the Shah, for a brief period it looks like the dawn of a new, democratic era. Khomeini, however, is installed, and the country is plunged into a religious, orthodox rule. Marji’s parents send her abroad to Vienna to be safe. After a shaky start, Marji makes friends with a group of metal-rocking, nihilistic French teens, but she never shakes the sense of her otherness. Blossoming into a young woman, she experiences her first heartbreak, with near fatal consequences, and ends up back in Iran, but to her dismay, she finds she is again the outsider. Especially hard to accustom to are the new, oppressive codes of dress and conduct imposed on women, and the still independent-minded Marji knows she can’t survive in such an environment.

The visuals stay true to the graphic novel’s style, with various influences readily apparent: the swirly, gothic renditions of trees and architecture have a Burtonesque feel; the adolescent transition is conveyed via a cubist sequence, and Picasso’s vision can also be felt in the Guernica black, white and grey tones. Munch’s ‘Scream’ finds a re-imagining in Marji’s own silent scream. The political complexity is conveyed in a very simplified but surprisingly to-the-point summary, and besides, Marji’s story, no matter how rooted in the political, is primarily a personal one.

The film’s greatest achievement is in conveying the pluck and heart of this headstrong heroine, and her loss of will to live is a tragic indictment of a regime that failed all of its people. The tone is very much in the tragi-comedic register – several heart-wrenching moments are mitigated by an exuberant, humane humour. Moments that stand out for their comic genius are Marji’s perusing of the black market for music tapes, with the suspicious-looking Arab men each barking out their respective bands; also funny is the life drawing class in Marji’s Teheran art school, where instead of a nude model, a girl dressed from head to foot in a burqa offers little in terms of anatomical training. Marji’s main source of solace is her Grandma, who is a mentor figure and partner in crime, whether it’s accompanying her to the cinema for the likes of Godzilla, or cheering her up about her impending divorce. And it is Grandma’s advice on keeping fresh jasmine flowers in your brassiere that echoes again at the end of the film, as we see Marji once again at a crossroads, missing her Grandma’s wise presence. There’s no tidy ending, with a happy-ever-after (how could there, given the present situation in Iran?), but Marji has come to certain realisations, and that’s a start. In that light, the ending is both fitting and realistic.