There are certain things too rich or strong, too full-bodied or intense, to fully appreciate on first approach.
We all have these shock encounters in our childhoods, be it our first exposure to whisky, red wine or a blue cheese, as examples. They are at odds with the palette range we were accustomed to, and so they seem distasteful or foul. We may have come to love these things, but to begin with we recall only disgust.
My first experience of the cinema of Claire Denis was like this.
You never finish refining your tastes; they are always mutable. And even though, back in 2014, I thought I had reached a place of across-the-board openness, there were still plenty of uncharted territories. I thought I had experienced dark cinema, putting myself through the wringer with David Lynch, Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke to name but a few. I’d brought myself up on horror movies, after all, surely I was seasoned enough? Little While Lies had sung the praises of Denis’ Bastards and my local arthouse cinema had a one-off screening. Why not? It seemed like a moody thriller, nothing more. But I came out deeply resistant to what I’d been put through, and wrote a damning review accordingly.
This dismissal never did sit quite right with me, especially with a number of critics that I respect and admire openly holding the film in high regard. True enough, I don’t always agree with writers whom I hold in great esteem, but I was getting the impression that Denis’ was actually a significant name on the world stage. With the assistance of MUBI, I saw a couple more of her features – Trouble Every Day and 35 Shots Of Rum – and felt more open toward them (by this time I had also started watching more female directed cinema in general, and had discovered Denis’ fellow French contemporary Olivier Assayas). Then, last year, her seemingly against-type romantic drama Let The Sunshine In was a joy. The time had come, it seemed, to give Bastards another try.
Still cagey that it might not be worth the gamble, I hedged my bets and found a second-hand bluray on eBay. Bracing myself, I picked an evening and sat down with it again. It’s still a difficult proposition, but I found far more to appreciate and have done since (setting aside time again before writing this to experience it for a third time).
As this is hardly a well-known title, allow me to briefly pitch it. Marco (Vincent Lindon) returns to Paris when his estranged sister’s husband commits suicide. Suspicious circumstances surround the event, not least the disappearance of their daughter Justine (Lola Creton), who then reappears, naked, with bloodstains between her legs. Marco starts his own investigation, setting up shop in a Hausmannian apartment across the way from a woman named Raphaella (Chiara Mastroianni). Raphaella is the wife of the dead man’s business partner, and she and Marco start an affair. Meanwhile, Marco’s haphazard investigation starts to uncover seedy goings on at a farmhouse outside Paris that seems to double as a grotesque porn set.
Bastards asks the viewer to play detective, too. Character relations are not well established, and defining how different people relate takes concentration. My first approach to this movie resulted in a rant about how little impetus we’re given to try. Part of that (misguided) stance came from the uncertainty of what shape the full movie would turn out to be. There’s always a part of you trying to feel out the size and scope of a film when watching it the first time, because these things are unknowns. On the rewatch, these concerns are gone; you know what you’re getting into on these terms, and you can concentrate fully on other aspects that require your attention.
The pull-quote from Tim Robey in The Telegraph on the back of the bluray box is “a frighteningly intense puzzle-piece” and this seems more-or-less spot-on as far as soundbite summations go. Everything is there for you in Bastards, but the pieces are deliberately scattered and Denis is asking for your cooperation in putting them together. This is interactive cinema; an antidote to so much passive viewing. I’m guilty of coasting through movies at home, spending half the time on my phone. Denis’ work totally rejects this approach to viewing, and its a method that I respect and encourage. A request for discipline.
Denis is also clearly as interested in mood. Bastards is a dour, foreboding piece of work and an echo of its tone can be found in Lynne Ramsay’s latest film You Were Never Really Here. Where Ramsay has Jonny Greenwood providing her score, Denis has American alternative troupe Tindersticks. The music in Bastards is almost its most evocative aspect, especially when in collusion with Denis’ shots of Paris under a deluge of rain. The film’s opening shot of a windswept downpour wrought in sickly yellows against a murky brown background is one of its signatures. Denis here establishes mood so wonderfully. Said mood just happens to be unremitting gloom shot through with the potential for violence. Bastards isn’t perfect, but its way with atmosphere is acute and worth praising.
Recently on Twitter I saw someone asking for the films that people associate with Paris and many answers turned, naturally, to those that romanticise the city so well. But I’ve always associated Paris with some darker vein of thought; a more menacing potentiality. It’s a city that holds secrets (this notion is romantic in another way), one which, like London, has all sorts of sinuous cavities in which anything could be happening. It may not be the most flattering presentation, but Denis’ Bastards is as evocative of the city as any other, only here the main concerns are, as the title so brutishly suggests, the moral rectitude of men who will even destroy their own.
And if I’ve not done a complete 180 on Bastards, I’ve at the very least achieved a begrudgingly respectful 165.