Published Oct 10, 2013When Bastards opens, a steady stream of rain obscures our vision. The rain itself is the intended image, but it's consistency and persistence, removed from the associated sound, transforms into other possible interpretations, such as the rapid traversing of a weathered road. A minimalist, synthesized, emotionally conscious score draws us into a room, where we see a man through a doorway, staring at the shower, appreciating the image that precedes him and our awareness of his presence and shared gaze.
There's both intimacy and voyeurism in this composition, inviting the audience to see through the eyes of a stranger while being reminded that we are, in fact, watching someone through a doorway. It's a visual trajectory of character introduction throughout that reiterates the notion of form and perspective framing the often sensual and occasionally horrific imagery about to unfold.
Other snippets of narrative information begin to unravel: an ambulance approaches a dead body; a woman wanders through the streets in nothing but high heels; and another mourns the death of her husband. It all floats by with ease, having a lulling, strangely comforting montage effect despite touching upon distressing subject matter and lacking context.
Eventually, the focus settles upon Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sailor that returns home after his brother-in-law commits suicide. In trying to play hero to grieving sister Sandra (Julie Bataille), he learns that the economy has decimated the business she inherited and that she's borrowed money from a notable affluent businessman, Edouard (Michel Subor). He's also thrown into the middle of an underground prostitution ring, where his niece, Justine (Lola Créton), has presumably been raped repeatedly, needing surgery to repair her vagina.
Oddly, these storylines are mostly eschewed in favour of the love affair that Marco has with Edouard's wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). He sells everything he owns and cashes in retirement savings to move into an apartment adjacent this woman, where his calloused, blue-collar sexuality intrigues her, compared to her seemingly sexless life with a much older man.
Though the title Bastards cheekily implies female subjugation as its thematic trajectory, reiterating this by depicting each female as victim of financial, sexual or otherwise abject manipulation, Denis presents Marco as the subject of the gaze. It's his sexuality and movement that are objectified, though carefully not gratuitously exploited, through the series of encounters between him and Raphaëlle. We're forced into an intimate space with this outsider, watching him try to help, and fix, the lives of the women around him, while his wealth and gruff masculinity are ultimately objectified by the text and dominant eye.
The dreamlike nature of it all evades facile interpretations of gender reversal and money as singular motivators, however. The desire at hand is the focus, just as the deliberate shot composition blended with an increasingly intense soundtrack mask the telling verbal exchanges, where Marco endlessly asserts the loveless nature and impossible passion of Raphaëlle's marriage despite her casual response that it's far more complicated than he might think.
Even more intriguing is the overt, yet still ambiguous, presentation of Edouard as an impotent villain. While his financial stature and role suggest traditional menace, Bastards is careful to reiterate that no one forced Sandra to borrow money from him, just as no one forced Raphaëlle to marry him. How victimhood is dictated by economy and gender is just one of the intriguing puzzles and dichotomies looming throughout this darkly sensual ride.
Though the intermingling of thematic elements is a tad messy, Denis's ability to capture intimacy and tell a story beyond the superficiality of the narrative gives her latest work a galvanic sensibility. How Bastards feels is, in a way, more important than what it specifically says.
The retrospective, Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis, runs at TIFF Bell Lightbox from October 11 to November 10, 2013. Claire Denis will be in attendance on Thursday, October 17, 6:45 p.m. to present her Carte Blanche selection, a restored 35mm print of Touki Bouki (1973). She'll also be in attendance on Friday, October 18, 6:30 p.m. to do a Q&A for her new film, Bastards. (Mongrel Media)