(Photo : Sundance Selects (Courtesy of NYFF))
Once in a while film directors decide to challenge the audience by providing a movie out-of-sequence. The viewer is asked to put the pieces and clues together by the end of the journey with the disjointed structure illuminating the viewer on the themes and ideas of the film. Claire Denis' latest film "Bastards (Les Salauds)" takes a stab at this structural experimentation but winds up becoming an incomprehensible mess that slowly falls into tedium.
The movie tells the story Marco (Vincent Lindon) who must investigate the disappearance of his niece Justine (Lola Creton). During his investigation he falls for the Raphaelle (Chiara Martoianni), who is married to the prime suspect Eduard Laporte (Michael Subor).
The film begins during a rainy night when a man commits suicide and a naked female, later revealed to be Justine, walks around the streets bleeding severely. The opening sequence creates the mystery of the film as nothing is revealed about the characters and there is an ambiguity to what is going on.
However the biggest problem is that after a half-hour, there is still questions about what is going on and who the major players in the story are. Marco is introduced when his sister Sandra (Julie Bataile) calls on him to investigate the disappearance. He then moves into an apartment where he meets Raphaelle. A sexual affair begins between the two that does little to propel the plot further. It only causes conflict for Raphaelle whose husband threatens to take away her son (Yann Antoine Bizette). Despite the seemingly direct plot threads, the plot moves at a dull pace with repetitive sex scenes between Raphaelle and Marco taking up the bulk of the screen time.
While the film is rife with ambiguity, Denis sets up a number of ideas that she never builds on or resolves. For example, in one scene Raphaelle finds her son's bicycle in the woods; she is surrounded by a number of police officers. The scene is placed in the middle of the movie and opens up a number of questions regarding the child's safety. Is he dead? How did he get here? Moments later, the viewer sees the kid safe and sound, essentially creating the impression that the mysterious scene will be resolved later on in the story. Unfortunately Denis leaves this open-ended with no context left behind to solve the mystery.
If the film is structurally incomprehensible Denis makes it even harder to identify with most of the characters as she seems intent on creating a morose world that borders on chaos and destruction. Marco is the central figure and he may be the most identifiable character due to his complexity. He works for the marines to get away from his wife, daughters, and sister. He comes back to seek out revenge and starts using Raphaelle to get closer to his target. While he is far from a "likeable" character, he manages to maintain the story somewhat focused.
The rest of the characters do not fare a similar fate. Marco's sister Sandra does not seem to care about anyone. Upon finding out her husband committed suicide and her daughter is missing, she responds that it is the police's fault. She does not cry or reveal any emotion towards the tragedy. Instead she stares with a very a calculating face. As the film comes to its end, the narrative reveals out that she has been an accomplice in a horrendous crime, further alienating the viewer from the events on screen.
Raphaelle is understandable in the sense that she is living a frustrated marriage in which she is little more than a "concubine." The resulting attraction to the mysterious Marco is understood, but the two performers fail to truly create any palpable chemistry on-screen. Lindon is rather one-note throughout with a muted voice and a serious expression that never changes or reveals any emotional substance underneath. Martoianni's portrayal of Raphaelle is one of extremes. She is rather bland in most of her scenes but when called on for an emotional moment she is almost melodramatic in her aggression.
Audiences will likely shudder at the crude quality of some of the scenes. One of the hardest moments to watch is a very erotic car ride that includes Justine and two of her friends. Justine is emphasized throughout with moving extreme close-ups. There is also an unsteady glance in her face creating a very nauseating sequence. There is also another scene that also includes Justine in a disgusting video that implies sexual actions with two old men and a cob of corn. Denis does not help in the way she shoots. The raw quality coupled with the erotic movie suggests borderline pornography. While the artist impact is understood, the effect is revolting and off-putting.
Denis' film aims to showcase a world of turbulent family relationship. However, the confusing opening coupled with a slow build-up fail to truly capture the viewer. As the film heads toward its big climax, the viewer is left uninterested and ultimately unsatisfied.