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bastards-poster2014 (2013 – France) 

Genre: Drama

Directed by: Claire Denis

Starring: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille

How many times do you hear the film industry described as a dream factory? Claire Denis’ overdue return after a 4-year absence ably demonstrates that in the right hands, it’s a medium just as potent at creating compelling nightmares. Her journey into powerlessness, perversion and the dark recesses of the soul makes for hard yet absorbing viewing. Almost unbearable at times, brilliant at others, Denis’ tale of the complexity and complicity of abuse is almost as impossible to watch as it is to ignore.

The central plot rests firmly on the shoulders of Vincent Lindon as supertanker captain Marco Silvestri. He is forced to return from a job after a distress call from his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille). Her husband has committed suicide and daughter Justine (Lola Créton) is in hospital, the victim of horrific sexual abuse. She’s convinced successful businessman Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), who lives with his mistress Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) and their young son, caused all of this. Marco is thrust into the middle, left to try and repair his broken family while pursuing Laporte.

The story is conventional in content but Denis tells it in brooding fragmentary bursts. Light is at a premium, much of the plot unfolding in rain sodden shadows. Moving between timeframes, she keeps viewers off balance, steadily increasing the disturbing sense of confusion. Long time collaborators the Tindersticks add an ominous score, heavy in dread. Rarely a scene goes by without the murky sense of unease closing in further.

While much of the attention is on the construction of an atmosphere that creeps up in stages, Denis is not above the use of immediately jolting visuals. The camera’s gaze falls on used agricultural produce in a way that will put you off ever wanting to eat certain foods again, while the image of Justine walking naked through streets, blood pouring down her thighs, is hard to shake.

Lindon’s Marco, fittingly for his nautical career, serves as the anchor of the film. Here is a strong, capable man who finds himself powerless to defend against the events around him. The different forces, from Laporte to Raphaëlle, and even his sister, buffet him constantly. Everyone is either using him or sizing him up, sometimes both. He bears it with stoic resignation, realising his limited ability to alter the course of events. His professional life previously allowed him to shrug off day to day responsibilities. He has two daughters of his own he rarely sees and relatives he’d slipped away from, but Sandra’s crisis has pulled him back in. Now, he doesn’t abandon his family, running down savings and sticking around to try and help.

He may be assailed from multiple sides, but he hides his emotions well, a mechanical coolness masking most actions. He fights off assailants, beats up the manager of a seedy brothel and even has sex mechanically. The other characters move around him, flitting in and out as Marco heads towards a revelation he neither wants nor can avoid. Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle is particularly impressive, driven by a desire to protect her son from Laporte’s vindictiveness while keeping the benefits he bestows on her, yet drawn to Marco as a source of relief that makes her struggle with Laporte bearable. This plays out with minimal input from Marco himself. What he may spark off, he can no longer control.

With Marco as the centre point, Denis is free to dip into themes that lie at the heart of the events swirling around him. Marco awakens to the cool depths perpetrators of abuse are willing to sink to, but the complicity of victims and third parties is just as key. Justine, for all the suffering she’s endured, finds herself partly drawn back in while Sandra is casually dismissive of many of her daughter’s problems. Even Raphaëlle is willing to turn away from the harder but right course of action.

If there is a false step, it comes with Laporte and Justine. He’s a malevolent presence but remains neither developed enough to be the sinister villain he’s made out to be nor peripheral enough to warrant character shortcuts. When he climbs into bed with Raphaëlle making blunt demands it’s too cheap a way to establish his nature. Much more successful is the relationship with his son, a hint of menace never far from the surface. A car ride with the camera falling to capture Laporte’s hand engulfing the young boy’s is beautifully disturbing. Justine is also something of a shock device, her naked and bloody walk a touchstone to keep the mood intact. But she comes into her own when it counts.

Any lingering hope dies with the simple yet destructive final frames. Denis plays with her story, slowly unravelling depraved secrets until the shocking denouement brings this dirty encounter to a close. Deeply unpleasant, unremittingly bleak, it will haunt thoughts for some time afterwards.

★★★★

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