The latest film from french filmmaker Claire Denis deals with people grieving and coping. The situations are bleak and only become more sullen. It’s particularly unsettling due to Denis taking a very close look into these troubled lives, adding a very personal vibe to the dreariness.
This confidential approach serves Bastards well when Denis and her actors can gel on the same intimate level. Scenes involving drawn out foreplay and sex between two distraught parents don’t feel as exploitive as they could’ve become. Instead, they offer movie goers a mixture of honesty and rawness. It’s easy to see how these two aimless strangers would be attracted to each other in a way that only hurt people would understand in the moment.
Even though Denis is succeeding in making her film feel as real as possible, don’t be surprised if these moments seem so real, that they make you feel uncomfortable. I think Denis would take that feeling of wanting to look away as a compliment.
These scenes of sexual tension are the only times when Denis’ authentic filmmaking work though. As the film’s first third is established, a lot of realizations seem to overemphasize the fact that the audience is peering in on the heartbreak from a third-person perspective. The director/co-writer – who normally knows how to portray such views – accidentally slips into this mode when the shot is framed with a busy foreground.
The performances by Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni are fine tuned and it gets tougher to see these two be dragged through such distress because of how well they emote teetering defeat.
Bastards, however, is a film that bites off more than it can chew. It’s also a film that’s as dry as a spoonful of unbleached flour in the Mojave Desert. Whereas scenes of naked intimacy are “just right”, other droning instances of the characters floating through life are tremendously dull. You’ll want to speak back to the screen and reprimand the film to pick up its feet.
As if they’ve heard you speaking aloud, Claire Denis and co-writer/frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau make the final acts into more of a suspense that should have us on the edge of our seats – while still maintaining its slow burn pace.
The problem is too much gets thrown in the mix and a lot of the material reads as pushy adult fiction that would sell well at an airport. In book form, it may have found an audience and made the time move swiftly as those wait for a delayed flight. But, as a film, the results make for a drab yarn that goes on and on.
There’s plenty of emotion being expelled by its committed actors and a few risky moves during the conclusion are legitimate shockers, but you walk out with a dampening chill.
Then again, like that knee-jerk reaction to look away during steamy affairs, perhaps that off-putting reaction as the credits roll was Denis’ intention. Not everything can be sunshine and sugarplums. If that’s the case, she’s done a good job at bumming all of us out, but there’s still a key piece missing – holding her work back from being preferably good.
Because the film doesn’t have a whole lot to say, Bastards doesn’t give us a whole lot to think about. An audience’s reaction can only run as deep as a movie gives them room for. Claire Denis has shown an alarmingly realistic portrayal of stuporous sadness with Bastards…but that’s about it.