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.
Bastards is released on 14th February 2014