Bastards (2014) & Claire Denis Q&A
One of the crucial oversights of last year’s festival efforts was Claire Denis’s provocatively poised Bastards, a transgressive title for what I can now report as an uncompromising and difficult film. To smugly concede some context although this was on my radar last year due to Denis’s reputation of one of European cinema’s pre-eminent auteurs its importance was enhanced when I got chatting to a fellow festival patron at a bar one evening, if memory serves she was the Senior Film Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin or somewhere and she heartily recommended it as one of the best films of the festival. I’ll admit that Denis is something of a blind spot for me, I have seen White Material as I’ll see anything with Isabelle Huppert in it and the acclaimed Beau Travial has also been watched, for all you Holy Motors fans that also features a striking performance from the gnomic Denis Lavant. Although I haven’t seen her 2001 film Trouble Every Day is has been on my watch list for quite a few years, mostly because it is often cited in the same breath as the ‘uncompromising visions’ of Gasper Noe, Nicholas Winding-Refn or any of the recent circus of so-called ‘extreme’ French cinema, as we all know I’m a sick puppy so such claims always lurch onto my radar. Her films take an unwavering look at notions of masculinity, femininity and the Venn diagram overlaps between the two, often a turbulent point of egress which results in conflict and disruption in the role models that society pre-generates as part of the cultural infrastructure. Like Trouble In Mind this new film mines these particularly dark shores of the social psyche, a noir themed twist on complicity and the very darkest stains of human cruelty.
Opening on images of movement, of streaking shapes moving downward it’s not immediately clear whether we’re looking at a POV of a figure moving swiftly through a long-tailed field of grass, or gazing upward into the face of a saturating thunderstorm, before a hard cut to a naked young woman hesitantly stumbling through a midnight Parisian suburb. Another woman named Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni, whom apparently is the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve) is being interviewed at a police station, and we clearly discern that her father has died and she has ‘no-one else left now’. A year later and Raphaëlle has married a wealthy businessman, and she and her son are ensconced in a spacious Parisian apartment. The vacant space above them is leased by a taciturn ship’s captain named Marco (Vincent Lindon) whom is on shore leave, and seems to be taking some specific interest in Raphaëlle and her new husband. He also has other matters at hand, his sister is shielding some dark family secret concerning the sexual abuse of her young daughter at the hands of some unspecified aggressors, so when Marco and Raphaëlle finally fuck – and I use the word ‘fuck’ as opposed to ‘make love’ advisedly to clarify the difference – we’re not entirely sure what exactly his motives are beyond functional satisfaction…..
This was quite a change in terms of design and style to recent Menagerie morsels, it’s a film firmly positioned in the adult school of serious cinema, not quite into Art-house territory but certainly a mature film for mature audiences. It’s a film which requires some work, it requires concentration, not just to absorb the subtitles but also assemble the plot points and developments which are parcelled out in small indiscriminate pieces, with zero exposition and a specific dearth of dialogue leading to speculation on its artistic merits and models of communication. It’s a frigid and cold film, a distancing work with virtually nothing in performance, location or camera technique to thaw its frosty percipitation, a modern noir alike investigation of two souls traversing lifes dark highway and finding purchase in each other’s arms, both harbouring murky secrets and clandestine motives. Some of the plot details turn down some of the darkest recesses in terms of perversion and power, a grim mirror to current revelations of nauseating urges which are haunting the Western world on both sides of the Atlantic, from Sports coaches and film directors in the US to aging TV personalities and politicians in Europe. For all its expertise and grim execution I find myself unable to recommend it at least on a first viewing, it’s difficult to article given that films of this temperature from the likes of Haneke, Bresson or Kubrick are usually among my favourites, I just don’t think this quite managed to perforate its tendrils under the skin and the narrative mechanics moved to a rather sluggish conclusion rather than a disquieting growl. It may be I wasn’t in the mood and I would say that the two-hour run time flew by so it wasn’t a case of mid-week exhaustion, I really liked the Tindersticks score whom alongside cinematographer Agnès Godard are frequent Dennis collaborators, providing a sense of cluster and impenetrable sustainability to her body of work.
A rather stilted Q&A followed, although I have to say the quality of query was of a higher quality than normal, if veering toward quite serious academic concerns which was punctuated with the odd technical question – this was Denis first digital lensed film and that always prompts debate. One question coaxed out quite an amusing reading of Hitchcock’s Vertigo which illustrated her idiosyncratic approach to story, she quite rightly asserted that the common sex roles promulgated by Hollywood during the era is throughly inverted in that film, with the so-called hero being elderly, incompetent at his job, failing in romantic engagements and almost insane with obsession by the end of the picture – not exactly the picture of solid, dependable masculinity. These musings over representations of gender roles and their constructions within texts run through her work, with Bastards offering a similar critique of traditions, I’ll avoid plot spoilers but the usual stereotypes are somewhat twisted especially when considering the usual protagonist / antagonist schemata. She loathes the label of auteur and considers it as a badge of boring, repetitive filmmaking which in her experience is much more collaborative and built by committee than the auteur model suggests, nevertheless you can sense the same themes and topics being revisited throughout her work, alongside certain aesthetic choices (Natural locations, gelid framing, economic deployment of music, compositions reminiscent of still photography) informing how her chracters interact with each other and their physical surroundings within the cinematic space.
Next up when it comes to gruelling art-house flirtations the Nymphomaniac double screening is coming up in a fortnight, including a simultaneous satellite Q&A broadcast around screenings in the UK, I’m still trying to work out just how long (stop sniggering) a back to back (stop sniggering) double (stop sniggering) bill (eh?) will take to digest, I think this must be the shortened version(s) as I can’t see over five hours of material exposing itself along with a Q&A even if the programme begins at 6pm. The Berlin premiere seems to have generated a fair lick of controversy which of course never happens with Von Trier pictures, I’m avoiding specific reviews of course until I’ve had a chance to take in the show, but after mostly Hollywood designed fare I have to say I’m becoming positively excited by the prospect of something a little more dangerous. It’s either that or I take my chances with The Monuments Men which has been positively blitzkriegied critically speaking (I’m still going to give it a shot) or I risk the wrath of furrow browed parents by storming screenings of the Lego movie as an individual middle-aged man, I think I’m a little too old to construct an opinion which builds upon this structural sycophancy so I’ll let you child rearing souls make your own mind up…