Images have a way of eluding comprehension in Claire Denis films. Surfaces and bodies display themselves sensually, only to bend away from clarity and back into darkness. At its most deeply felt, as in 35 Shots of Rum, this style teases out a general impression of romantic longing on par with anything Wong Kar Wai has ever directed. Yet Denis is rarely content to confine her subject matter to gestures of unfulfilled desire. More often, as in Trouble Every Day and I Can’t Sleep, Denis uses her command of beauty to lure viewers into dim alleys where violence lurks. On one hand, Denis’ films are often rooted in a somewhat old-fashioned moralism: the film noir’s warning that beauty can only lead to corruption; that evil clothes itself in the pleasures of the flesh. On the other, they trade in a brand of subconscious, sublime, pre-verbal desire: the urge to unite with others to the point of devouring them.
Denis’ latest film, Bastards, pushes this dynamic still farther, plumbing the depths of sexual intrigue and corporate malfeasance in a narrative that tests the limits of her approach. Vincent Lindon plays Marco Silvestri, a sea captain whose family has suffered catastrophe at the hands of the wealthy industrialist Edouard Laporte (Denis regular Michel Subor). The film descends into progressively more upsetting territory as Marco attempts to pry two women from the more powerful man’s grips: Laporte’s mistress (Chiara Mastroianni), and Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton), who has undergone a mysterious sexual trauma at the hands of his nemesis. All this backstory is doled out in characteristically oblique terms. The film opens with a series of images whose relation is perversely obscure, crisscrossing among the various characters while playing fast and loose with chronology. Most arresting among these early passages is the sight of a narcotized, nude Creton zombie-walking the streets of Paris in high heels, an alluring glance at horrors that only become clear later on.
One of Bastards’ greatest strengths is the confidence and virtuosity with which Denis threads these fragments together piece by piece. At no point does she snap in a piece of the puzzle with the flourish of a Hollywood reversal; instead, she slides each narrative scrap into place with such grace that it’s easy to miss the fact that a larger picture is developing—until it has emerged into terrifying clarity. Few directors respect the intelligence of their audience as much as Denis, or share her understanding of cinema’s ability to stimulate synaptic connections. As an art-house horror movie, Bastards is a wild success, expertly blending the mundane and the appalling. To what end Denis pulls off this feat is another question.
More than any of her other films – even her notorious take on the vampire genre, Trouble Every Day – Bastards finds Denis playing up the violence and fatalism of her subject matter. The film retains the seductive surfaces of her greatest achievements, but lacks their organic spontaneity and emotional pull. It’s hard to imagine anything like Beau Travail’s concluding dance breakdown disrupting the bleak structures Denis has fastened into place here. In order to chart its achievements and shortcomings, it’s instructive to compare Bastards to two of its closest cinematic cousins: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. As a neighbor to Polanski’s own grim fable of corruption, sexual and otherwise, Denis’ film succeeds admirably, deftly adapting her style to the demands of the noir genre. Yet in its treatment of the victims of corruption, Bastards looks shallow next to Lynch’s chronicle of the last days in the life of an abused teenager. Where Fire’s Laura Palmer is perhaps the most fully realized character in Lynch’s oeuvre, Creton’s Justine remains little more than a cipher. Her near-mute performance fits neatly into Denis’ schema, but also reveals its shortcomings. Bastards refers to Justine as evidence of man’s capacity for evil, sensuality’s death drive, etc., to the point of near-tautology. At no point does the film make a Lynchian attempt to crack open the shell of her unknowability. When Denis finally depicts the scene of Justine’s trauma, she deploys a diegesis-shattering device too clever to reveal,which simultaneously immerses us in the horror and distances us from the characters’ interiority. It’s a brilliant move, and a revealing self-indictment, but one that begs the question of what Bastards might have been had Denis decided to open her enigmas up rather than seal them off.
The 51st New York Film Festival runs from September 27 to October 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.