Sometimes there are detective movies without detectives. Or, more to the point, the detective is the audience. Clarie Denis' newest film, the evocative and cool "Bastards," is a thriller that purposefully obscures the thrills. There are striking revelations, but nothing as gauche as a Shyamalan twist. It is, at heart, a straightforward story, but told in an intentionally complex manner, rewarding the audience at its conclusion. There's even a peek at surveillance footage, and while it does offer up something of a character unmasked, it is more about finally understanding a dark corner of a person's soul.
Printed out on index cards, "Bastards" is simple, but Denis' film holds plot points close to the vest. The effect offers a strange empathy with the characters. I'm not saying I want every movie done in this elliptical fashion, but when done sharply it can make for a compelling experience. I haven't had so many post-screening conversations to nail down the implication of certain shots since "Upstream Color." Unlike Shane Carruth's pseudo-scientific psychedelic freakout, however, this is ultimately a straight-up tale of vengeance.
After a mesmerizing prologue that involves a naked and bleeding Lola Creton zombie-walking in high heels through the streets at night, we settle in on a young mother (Chiara Mastroianni) in a large Paris apartment. In time we'll realize that she is the mistress of elderly industrialist Edouard (Michel Subor) who is also father of her child. She's got a new neighbor, Marco (Vincent Lindon) who begins selling off his possessions in order to stay in the building, in which he keeps only a mattress, a rack of clothes and a computer.
The scenes all seem disconnected to one another, but those who have patience will eventually be able to work out what the characters (and others yet introduced) have to do with one another, and how they relate to the images in the first sequence. Piecing this together on your own is, at least for me, the principle point of this film, so I'll go easy on the specifics here.
While we're certain early on that Marco has an agenda, the relationship he forms with Raphaelle (Mastroianni's character) quickly turns intimate "for real." The conventions of the set-up telegraph that Edouard is a villain of some sort, but our ignorance of the facts in some way mirrors Raphaelle's (willful?) ignorance. She's aware Marco sees her as just a concubine (Edouard arrives unnanounced via chauffeur late at night and slips into her bed to demand sexual favors) but her focus is on raising her son.
In a world after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, France's attitude toward the patrician "boys' club" is certainly being reevaluated. A key figure crucial to the film's central mystery bears an uncanny resemblance to DSK, we are clearly meant to ask how long this exploitation of women will continue. Still, to an American audience, the obviousness of Mastoianni's status not raising too many eyes in society ought to make for some "oh, those French!" moments.
"Bastards" is a slow burn with strikingly captivating final scenes. It manages to be simultaneously surprising and inevitable, all doled out in a hazy, dreamlike nature. An original score by Tindersticks goes a long way to express the feverish anger and transgressive lust of the characters - and the last shot especially is an uncomfortable punch to the gut. It doesn't quite reach the heights of pure cinema found in Denis' "Beau Travail" or "White Material," but it is far superior to her forcing-it-too-hard attempts in "Trouble Every Day" and "Friday Night." This is absolutely a picture worth checking out, but definitely not alone - having someone to talk it over with afterwards is a requirement.
SCORE: 7.5 / 10