“You think your instinct is proof?”
I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but the English translation of Claire Denis‘ newest film Les salauds [Bastards] definitely hits its mark by the end. Who those “bastards” are, however, stays somewhat obscure for most of its duration besides the villain Sandra (Julie Bataille) hopes we’ll focus our sights upon at the start. Her husband Jacques’ (Laurent Grévill) suicide is what sets the mystery in motion and their business partner Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor)—their financial bail out to be exact—is her prime “suspect”. She won’t explain why or if there’s evidence against him, but a wealthy old man with a trophy girlfriend (Chiara Mastroianni‘s Raphaëlle) is hardly a murderer for letting them go bankrupt. Sandra just hopes her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon) can come home and discover the truth.
A navy man now captaining a supertanker for work, Marco stops his solitary life and career when Sandra calls with the bad news. He leaves his ship; flies to France; sells his car, watch, and life insurance; and selflessly gives everything to Sandra so she and the shoe company their father built can stay afloat without asking for more money from the man she blames everything on. Add that his niece Justine (Lola Créton) is currently being hospitalized as a suicide risk who hasn’t spoken a word since whatever sexual abuse she was made to endure and our knight in shining armor definitely has his work cut out for him to fix this chaos. Without knowing all the details, though, moving next door to Eduardo’s mistress and son is all he can think to do first.
Marco isn’t the only one kept in the dark by Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau—we too must glean whatever exposition we can through idle conversations and unexplained encounters as the filmmakers’ refusal to use transitional scenes makes every new interaction a leap through time with as many questions as answers. It opens with a sad Jacques on a rainy night; switches to the police covering his dead body while Sandra cries; confuses with Créton nakedly ambling down the streets, physically and emotionally lost; and confirms we know nothing yet about who they are or how they connect. The same goes with cutting from Marco on his ship to his apartment next to the beautiful woman we just saw drop her son at school. Only when an internet article shows her and Edouard together does recognition click.
It’s an intriguing story-telling technique that allows the film to slowly simmer as far as endgame is concerned while also moving quite rapidly through new characters, locales, and mysteries to solve. Jacques’ death may be central to why Marco has come, but he can’t help wondering where his disturbed niece plays into everything or deny his attraction for Raphaëlle (or hers back). An affair ensues between them as his cavalier attitude both titillates and scares her once the thought of losing Joseph (Yann Antoine Bizette) crosses her mind as a consequence of getting caught. The secrets Sandra is hiding come into the light after she takes Marco to a sex establishment with video cameras and bloodied corncobs she believes Justine had been. And the world Marco entered closes around him, suffocating in its pitch-black and dangerous turn.
To say more about the plot or how relationships expand and/or contract would do a disservice to what Denis has accomplished, but I will say that the grainy, dirty, and unrelenting final imagery set against Tindersticks‘ “Put Your Love In Me” will haunt you in its revelation of how depraved these characters are. Denis isn’t interested in giving happy endings or allowing justice to be served—in fact she may intentionally be after exactly the opposite of those things. No one is innocent and no one is truly good without some selfish pleasure on the side. And whether or not Marco had Sandra’s knowledge about how Edouard, Jacques, and Justine fit together or not, I’m not sure it would have changed any of the horrors that occurred in the heat of passion.
The disjointed construction keeps us on our toes as we decipher patterns that when broken allow us to finally get a step ahead of those onscreen. Simple details like Sandra giving Marco a gun or his fixing Joseph’s bike are obviously bits of foreshadowing, but they come naturally and without fanfare. Do people like Justine’s Dr. Béthanie (Alex Descas) or Marco’s friend Guy (Christophe Miossec) need as much screen time as they get? Maybe not. But making them as integral a part as the rest can only help balance the important moments as they unfold. Don’t be surprised too if you’re not given all the answers because Denis is definitely not driven by such irrelevant closure or background when the emotions of each action prove more powerful than any history of why it happened could.
These are severe performances inside a film with zero room for humor alongside suicide, rape, psychological blackmail, and murder. Everyone’s in way over his/her head, pushing boundaries to places none want to go except for self-preservation. Marco is it as far as maybe caring more about others than himself and Lindon finds a harmony between the compassion, anger, and lust converging to allow it. Bataille brilliantly holds her cards to her chest, Mastroianni lets emotion takeover, and Subor’s reptilian calm gives Edouard a much more formidable presence than initially expected. It’s Créton’s broken soul that I cannot shake, though, with her eyes’ silent screams. No one is allowed pure heroics, all fall victim at one point or another, and Denis makes sure we understand life is never as clean as we hope it will be.
Credit – Camille DE CHENAY
© 2013 ALCATRAZ FILMS / WILD BUNCH / ARTE FRANCE CINEMA / PANDORA PRODUKTION