Cinema Review: Bastards

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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

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Cannes Diary 4 – Days 7-8

candelabra-main

 Behind the Candelabra

David Neary embraces American-English, misses out on three-hours of lesbian sex and gets ripped off by Ma Nolan.

Tuesday was another beautifully sunny day in Cannes, the perfect excuse to hide from the sun in a dark room and watch things flicker on the screen that were less bright and frightening. I had missed Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, that morning, and as seems to be daily routine now everyone was talking about how great it was and its chances for the Palme d’Or. Michael Douglas, for the time being, is seen as a shoe-in for Best Actor.

Still disappointed from the film the previous night, I opted not to head into the Grande Bellezza press conference, despite my love of Sorrentino. After downing another liquid thunder-coffee at the espresso bar, I got in line (American journalists are rubbing off on me, the word ‘queued’ has started to look strange to me) for Claire Denis’ latest Les Salauds (The Bastards). There I got talking to Polish film critic Michal Oleszczyk, who sported a gloriously nerdy T-shirt with ‘Pauline Kael’ written on it in the font of an ’80s rock band logo. Cannes truly is the Mecca of film geekdom.

Controversially not in the main competition (where there are no female directors this year), Les Salauds may have a strong shot at winning Un Certain Regard. With the most vaguely plotted first 20 minutes imaginable, Denis’s film is a neo-noir that doesn’t introduce its characters, and leaves you collecting information a frustrating few beats behind the protagonist. Not a very enjoyable watch (and with some horrific sexual violence – a bit much before lunch), it all comes together for a quite startling final 10 minutes that make this a truly memorable film. Whether or not it was deserving of a spot in the main competition, it was certainly many leagues above the likes of Jimmy P.

I had planned to catch A Castle in Italy, but word was it is the weakest film in competition this year (worse than Jimmy P. and Wara No Tate), so I passed in order to catch up on writing and get some food for a change. Caught for time with another film fast approaching, I had to make the tourists’ Sophie’s Choice of grabbing food in McDonalds or Subway. I chose the latter, but I didn’t feel good about it.

Back at the Salle Debussy, I managed to squeeze my way into the press screening of Grigris, a French/Chadian coproduction, showing in the main competition. It’s perhaps the most unoriginal story imaginable; a performer in desperate need of money gets involved in illegal activities, decides to rob from his criminal bosses and has to go on the run. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before – except for Grigris himself. Playing a fictionalised interpretation of himself, dancer Soulémane Démé is a performer like no other. With an unexplained disability meaning his left leg is withered down to a slender stalk, Grigris is a human rubber band, able to bend himself in unimaginable ways as he gesticulates his flailing form with incredible skill on the dance floor. Démé’s physical performance is what makes the film work, in addition to some solid nighttime cinematography and an unexpectedly feminist ending.

Jaws was playing at the cinema on the beach, but I decided to call it a day then. Waiting for my train, an unexpected (and unwarranted) blitzkrieg of fireworks erupted over Cannes, deafening everyone for miles around. No doubt they cut into the enjoyment of Jaws a little.

The next morning I woke bright and early for another 8.30am screening. At this stage of the festival it had become embarrassingly clear that despite my expectations of drowning in movies at the festival, my batting average was only two a day. Today was going to be different, I thought, as I grabbed a petit déjeuner of a croissant and a bag of Haribo crocodiles and waited for my train.

Seated in the Grand Théâtre Lumière there was a huge amount of excitement in the air for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, his follow-up to Drive. There had been rumours slamming around Cannes the previous days that a gaggle of Danish press had seen a preview and been heartily unimpressed. Now was our chance to finally find out.

Well, yeah, they were right. Even more visually stylish than Drive, Only God Forgives also has less plot, character or purpose. A convoluted revenge tale set in Bangkok, Ryan Gosling stars as Ryan Gosling playing Ryan Gosling, a drug dealer who comes up against an unstoppable and vicious police chief who allowed Gosling’s brother to be killed in custody. Very little happens, and very little is said, other than Kristin Scott Thomas talking at length about her sons’ genitalia. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it’s very little else. As the credits rolled, rapturous applause and blistering boos rose into the air and collided like at the battle of the bands in Scott Pilgrim.

It was straight out of that into a rescreening of Behind the Candelabra for me. Soderbergh’s purposed final film is a superbly judged if straightforward drama anchored by excellent performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It’s Rob Lowe who steals the show however in his brief appearances. American audiences with HBO can enjoy it almost straight away, as it airs on Sunday night. At the cost of new Game of Thrones, however. Surely that’s too great a price to pay…

My closest shave of Cannes 2013 thus far came shortly after as I was hanging around the American Pavilion, chatting to some staff there about how disappointing we all felt Only God Forgives had been. ‘I thought the music was great at least,’ conceded one woman of Cliff Martinez’s score, to which I agreed, but added that it sounded like leftover tracks from Drive. We moved onto another topic altogether, but only just in time, as Cliff Martinez walked into the pavilion and straight through our conversation. Being a critic at Cannes can be very dangerous sometimes. You never know who is listening, or lurking around the next corner.

My third film of the day was to be Wakolda, showing in Un Certain Regard. Seemingly a rather pretty but standard Argentinian period piece, about a family opening a hotel in 1960, it takes a turn for the disturbing when their first guest turns out to be Josef Mengele, the real-life Auschwitz physician, and he takes a creepy interest in the family’s youngest daughter and her mother’s in-utero twins. A little slow moving, it is still a solid drama with some terrific imagery, most notably a doll factory where perfect blonde plastic girls are lined up on shelves while mangled and burned defected dolls lie crumpled in a heap on the floor.

Absent for a few days, the rains came back a vengeance, bringing with them the familiar sights of dampened tuxes and umbrella salesmen all down the promenade. With time to spare to grab some food,  I checked out the Armenian kebab joint everyone had been telling me about, and was not left disappointed. If there’s anything you miss while at Cannes, it’s eating remotely healthily.

Hiking back to the Palais in the rain, I shared a knowing, damp look with Michael Cera as his entourage umbrella’d him through the town. When I got back to Salle Debussy, I realised I had made an enormous error of judgement. The three-hour La Vie d’Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) was having its press screening and with the rain and its length I had assumed there would be little demand or queue for it. I could not have been more wrong. Apparently people really like their three-hour lesbian sex dramas.

Who knew?

Rejected from my second film of the festival, I had no choice but to join some friends for drinks in a local Irish pub, the unfortunately named Ma Nolan’s, where pints were a preposterous €6.70. If it can happen at Cannes, it can happen anywhere.

No, wait, scrap that! You’d never pay €6.70 for a pint at the Galway Film Fleadh. That’s some serious bullshit right there!

Still to come, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and Roman Polanski all have new films to show, and now that everyone and their mother is hailing La Vie d’Adèle as the first true masterpiece of the festival, I suppose I’ll have to block off some time to catch that now too.

It’s all fun and games until somebody misses a film.

 

Check out David Neary’s previous diary entries:

Cannes Diary: Days 4-6
David Neary dons his debs tux, fumes at French teens and survives on the Cannes diet and nap regime.

Cannes Diary: Days 2-3
David Neary eavesdrops on the Danish, gets berated by a Mexican, shares a boat with Metallica and hangs out with three of a decade’s worth of celebrity crushes. It’s tough in Cannes…

Cannes Diary: Day 1
David Neary brushes shoulders with the stars and an umbrella salesman at Cannes.

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Claire Denis films at the IFI

The IFI and Watershed will present Intense Intimacy, the body of work of innovative French director innovative Claire Denis. This retrospective is timed to mark the IFI release of her latest film White Material on Fri 2nd July and celebrate Denis’ evocative technique and complex films.

Tackling issues of race and sexuality, the colonial legacy and the disenfranchised, the schedule opens with 35 Shots of Rum on the 6th June and closes with The Intruder on 30th June, showing nine of her films in total. For a full programme visit www.ifi.ie

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35 Shots of Rum

35 Shots of Rum

DIR: Claire Denis • WRI: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau • PRO: Bruno Pésery • DOP: Agnès Godard • ED: Guy Lecorne • DES: Arnaud de Moleron • CAST: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, Gregoire Colin

Claire Denis is one in a long line of women that have been among the first rank of French directors. From Alice Guy-Blaché, through Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras, to Nelly Kaplan and Diane Kurys, French cinema has continuously provided a space for female directors to bring their artistic merit to the fore. Denis returns to Irish screens this year with 35 Shots of Rum, an affectionate and tender portrait of Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), who are at a transitional stage in their lives.

The film centres on their own particular relationship and that of two neighbours in the same apartment block, whose lives have become intertwined. Though the details of the characters’ lives are never made clear, the film elicits themes of letting go.

As in life, our encounters with these characters are, for the main part, mere glimpses into their lives. The film pulls the viewer into these people’s lives at a particular moment. Rather than spoon-feed a back story and character motivation in an effort to tell a complete story over the course of the film’s duration, Denis rests the camera on how things are, simply as they are, always maintaining a distance from the characters.

The film’s progress is marked by an elliptical naturalness that reflects life’s nature as moments of experience. As such, rather than being the sum of their narrative parts, the characters reveal themselves in subtle ways, culminating in a beautiful dialogue-free scene in a late-night café illuminated by music, when the four characters play out their pasts, presents and futures.

With restrained, affective performances and a beautiful score by Tindersticks, this is probably the only time the experience of 35 shots of rum will leave a sweet taste in your mouth.

Steven Galvin
(See biog here)


35 Shots of Rum is released on 10th July 2009
35 Shots of Rum Official Website

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