“It’s almost certain you’ll be lost during Claire Denis’s elliptical, bracingly angry portrait of a French family undone by its failures and perversities,” begins Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. “That’s the point, though, and it makes for one of the festival’s most difficult yet rewarding experiences.”
When Bastards screened in the Masters program in Toronto, Robert Koehler, writing for Cinema Scope, declared it Denis’s “best film since L’intrus… since it marries her interest in narrative jumps, classical tragedy (à la the Greeks, with the family as the locus of most of the crap in the world) and, yes, the workings of capitalism (as purveyor of much of said crap).”
“Inspired by William Faulkner’s 1931 novel, Sanctuary, and the Sadean sex parties attended by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other French operators, Denis’s latest—her first to be shot on digital video by her frequent cinematographer Agnès Godard—centers on a tenuous revenge plot,” writes Melissa Anderson for Artforum. “Sea captain Marco (Vincent Lindon) reluctantly returns to Paris to assist his disgraced sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille): Her husband has just committed suicide, and her daughter, Justine—a nod to de Sade’s heroine?—played by Lola Créton, is recovering in a clinic for participation in carnal acts so extreme that an operation may be required ‘to repair her vagina.’ Marco is convinced that Edouard LaPorte (Michel Subor), a DSK-like figure, is linked with both tragedies, though he soon discovers his sibling’s complicity in acts of unspeakable depravity…. If Bastards too often goes structurally awry with its actors’ fits of histrionics, it nonetheless leaves a scalding imprint for its unorthodox castigations.”
Max Nelson, writing for Film Comment, finds it “fascinating to watch a filmmaker so sensitive to the expressive potential of faces, bodies, and surfaces working in a genre that denies its characters the freedom to show what they’re feeling (and in some cases, the freedom to feel, period). You can sense Denis straining to read something behind Créton’s classical-statue gaze or Subor’s drowsy movements, or the way the dim hall-light reflects off Mastroianni’s exposed back during a staircase love scene (one of the film’s few moments of genuine tenderness), or above all in the film’s parade of weathered, bleary-eyed faces. But the surfaces, for the first time in any recent Denis film, remain surfaces: closed off, impassive, tight-lipped.”
The AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd notes that “while plenty have complained about the mundane nature of the story, once all its layers of misdirection have been peeled back, there’s a potent whiff of Chinatown-grade outrage to the ending. Denis has made a movie about how powerful men take what they want from the world; one need not have the whole thing figured out to be shaken by its horror and dismay.”
Before segueing into his interview with the director, Notebook editor Daniel Kasman writes: “It is another small film from Denis, as befits its intimate Parisian setting, a retreat from the sprawl of White Material, but brings back from that film the violence and primal darkness of its climatic night, finding it lain across a more modern but everyday world, with terrifying results.”
“In the Q&A after the press screening,” notes Elise Nakhnikian at the House Next Door, “Claire Denis said: ‘They [women] are victims, for sure, often. But I don’t want a film to give them pity always. I prefer to be fierce with them.'”
Updates, 10/8: “It’s ironic, or perhaps harmonic, that Bastards’ early scenes… feature Nicole Dogué (as a police inspector) and Alex Descas (as the head of a sanitarium), last seen together in Denis’ 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum,” notes Andrew Tracy in Reverse Shot. “Not only does the tight-knit family circle they belonged to in that film patently contrast with the fractured clan at the center of Bastards, but also the conscious decisions that, in Rum, resolve the incipient familial crisis—a slight but crucial shifting of that family’s configuration to prevent its close bonds from becoming suffocating—pave Bastards’ road to Hell.”
And Denis is a guest on Filmwax Radio.
Updates, 10/14: Nick Pinkerton interviews Denis for Film Comment, and then notes at Sundance Now that “Bastards is far from Denis’s first meditation on family; even in films that don’t directly address the subject, like 1999’s Beau Travail, it’s arguably the structuring absence…. Bastards might very well be a companion piece to Denis’ 2008 film 35 rhums, for both deal in family ties that bind, although only in Bastards do those ties become a garrote.” More interviews: David Ehrlich (Film.com), Adam Nayman (Globe and Mail), and José Teodoro (Cinema Scope).
“Claire Denis douses Bastards in her usual oblique dreaminess, equal parts romantic and malevolent,” writes Nick Schager in the Voice, “yet that style can’t fully compensate for a tale that, underneath its gorgeous aesthetic affectations, proves frustratingly undercooked.”
“Denis’s typically impeccable editing strings together individually stunning shots into fast-paced hypnosis,” grants Vadim Rizov, writing for Filmmaker, “but her fluid command meshes poorly with self-conscious morbidity, culminating in an arguably silly/unnecessarily provocation-minded ending.”
“The ellipticism of Denis comes almost to a fault in Bastards,” writes Peter Labuza. “It’s a film about corporate and sexual intrigue, in which we see neither…. The work feels left unfinished in some way, the pieces left to be filled in with feelings left unsaid, often spoken by a single frame (supercoherence at its most specific). Which is to say, Bastards is a Claire Denis film.”
Update, 10/19: Eric Hynes talks with Denis for the NYT.
Updates, 10/23: Manohla Dargis: “The pleasures of Ms. Denis’s films are in the crystalline beauty and mystery of her images, and the way that she puts all these images, including her expressive faces, into play with the fragmented dialogue and vaporous themes. Slowly, effortlessly, the pieces—the money, the sex, the bodies—begin to drift into place… The story grips you entirely even if Ms. Denis’s worldview here finally feels like a tomb: terrifying, pitiless, inevitable.” Also in the NYT, Mekado Murphy talks with Denis (2’01”).
For the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias, Bastards “may be the darkest film of Denis’ career—which, after her vampiric shocker Trouble Every Day, is saying something. Bastards deals in power and its corrosive effects, but it unfolds with such delicacy and mood that its endpoint is startling. How did the river wend and weave to such an awful place?”
Updates, 10/24: “Denis’s framework here is not necessarily one of her most innovative,” writes Nicolas Rapold at the L. “Chinatown comes to mind, or more recently, film maudit Lost Highway, especially in the queasy-making glimpses of video, the presence of Subor as evil big-man, and the Tindersticks soundtrack climax, an electro-stomp serenade to obscenity.” A “hard steadiness creeps into Bastards. It’s a movie ultimately epitomized by a Cocteauvian twist on the noir motif of driving in a speeding car, lost in the night.”
Writing for Filmmaker, Dan Sullivan suggests that we “posit that throughout her career, [Denis] has generally alternated between two modes: one is mellow, sensual, drift-like and attuned to the almost alchemical expressivities of objects, textures and sounds; the other is bruising, gruff and pervaded by an indomitable sense of dread. Her previous film, 2009’s White Material, was unmistakably a work in this latter gear, a politically charged Africa-set workout that found Isabelle Huppert’s coffee plantation owner and her tattooed oaf of a son wandering as if in a trance toward fatal just-desserts. Bastards extends Denis’ concern with the symbolic follies of mildly extraordinary people who are incapable of grasping the hopelessness of their respective situations. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a film that goes out of its own way to punch you in the jaw when you least expect it to.”
Updates, 10/25: Jonathan Romney for Film Comment: “Although it’s one of her most atmospherically rich works yet, Bastards initially comes across as a minor or marginal Denis film—not a resounding statement like Beau Travail (99) or The Intruder (04), and hard to know quite where to place in her oeuvre. As a film noir of sorts, it’s akin to her other genre exercise to date, the sort-of horror film Trouble Every Day (01)—the film of hers I like least, but hotly defended by many, not least by people who love the very idea of Denis playing with genre…. But even if it is merely a sketch or fragment, an elegant offhand gesture, this film is pure Denis and richly unsettling.”
Slate‘s Dana Stevens: “Bastards skillfully deploys noir tropes—the alienated hero, the two-timing femme fatale, the ever-widening web of deceit—in the service of a larger political vision. The foul goings-on in this particular billionaire’s inner circle stand in for the systemic sexual and financial exploitation that keeps capitalist society humming. No one’s hands feel clean on the way out, including the viewers’.”
Sam Adams talks with Denis for the Dissolve.
Update, 10/28: Hillary Weston talks with Denis for BlackBook.
Update, 11/1: Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times: “Denis, working again with longtime writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, works her enigmatic strands effortlessly, establishing with spare, shadowy assertiveness a matrix of manipulated souls whose sense of self-control is only as strong as their ability to trust. When that’s shattered, Denis makes brutally clear in the final act, heaven help us.”
Updates, 11/10: Denis is “Europe’s most daring writer-director,” declares Robert Koehler at arts•meme. And she has “only a few filmmakers from Iberia (Pedro Costa, João Pedro Rodrigues, Albert Serra, Miguel Gomes, all much younger than Denis) as serious competition. Her latest, Bastards, amply proves this.”
“Denis is one of contemporary cinema’s poet laureates of the human body,” writes Chuck Bowen here in Keyframe. “[T]he fleeting, hard, hot couplings in Bastards are revelatory of good quick sex as it can actually be (if we’re lucky), as Denis mines and accentuates the intricate subtleties of skin texture, of breathing methods, of the beautiful and often embarrassingly awkward work involved in achieving a physical connection that even vaguely resembles the connection of our dreams. And this striving for connection, this vulnerability, is exasperated by our frightening ignorance of the larger context the elisions deny us, rendering the eventual perversity of the third act all the more disturbing.”
Update, 12/1: “Denis is a remarkable director,” grants David Thomson in the New Republic, “but in this case she has made an absorbing but pretentious puzzle out of a rather empty (yet nasty) set-up.”