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Original title: Les salauds

D: Claire Denis / 100m

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Créton, Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Florence Loiret Caille, Christophe Miossec, Yann Antoine Bizette, Laurent Grévill

Following the death by suicide of his brother-in-law Jacques (Grévill), supertanker captain Marco Silvestri (Lindon) returns home at the behest of his sister, Sandra (Bataille). Sandra is convinced Jacques killed himself because of his involvement with successful businessman Edouard Laporte (Subor), though she has no proof. Marco moves into the apartment above Laporte’s, and begins a relationship with his mistress, Raphaëlle (Mastroianni); she lives there with their son, Joseph (Bizette). While Marco investigates Jacques’ death, he also discovers that his teenage niece, Justine (Créton), is in hospital having tried to take her life. He also learns that she has been sexually abused, but she won’t reveal who by. As his relationship with Raphaëlle becomes more intense, evidence seems to support the idea that Laporte is the person who assaulted Justine. Proof of what happened comes in the form of video footage, but it complicates things for Marco, and matters are further exacerbated when Justine runs away from the hospital where she’s convalescing, and Laporte tells Raphaëlle that Joseph is going to live with him…

A dark and moody thriller that, in Denis’s customary style, plays with notions of time and space and its characters physical connections to both, Bastards is a deliberately downbeat movie that is like taking a bath in multiple levels of corruption and moral culpability. Marco is a nominal hero, the nearest we get to a crusader looking for the truth, but even he’s not above behaving selfishly or violently in order to get the answers he’s looking for. He’s still the most sympathetic character in the movie – and that includes Justine, who is lost to both her family and the audience through her actions – but Denis, along with co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, ensures Marco isn’t above reproach for his actions, even though he’s doing his best to unravel the mystery of Jacques’s death, and Justine’s assault. He’s a good man with good intentions, but his actions are often as unsavoury as his nemeses. Lindon plays him with a taciturn, no-nonsense approach that hides deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and failure, the self-imposed distance between him and his family causing guilt to be the driving force behind his actions. Lindon is a strong masculine presence, powerful and stocky in a blunt, uncompromising way, and his casting is one of Denis’s best decisions.

There’s good support from Mastroianni as the compromised Raphaëlle, and though Subor is perhaps a little too reptilian for Laporte, he’s still an appropriately chilling figure (a moment where he takes Joseph’s hand in his is uncomfortable for the implication that goes with it). Denis has crafted an adroit though straightforward thriller that teases out its characters’ secrets and motivations in revelatory moments that are impactful dramatically if not quite promoting an emotional response in the viewer. Combined with the way in which the movie is assembled – Annette Dutertre’s editing, overseen by Denis, allows for scenes that feel disjointed and at times, out of place – this is as much an intellectual movie making exercise as it is a polished if gloomy thriller. It’s still a movie to admire in terms of its construction and the way it unfolds, but the lack of sympathetic characters makes it difficult to engage with, or care about the outcome, which is meant to be shocking, both for what is revealed, and for what it means overall. That being the case, the movie falls short of reaching its full potential, and remains a triumph of style over content.

Rating: 7/10 – not one of Denis’s best movies, but still intriguing to watch nevertheless, Bastards has a distinctly grim atmosphere to it, and a nihilistic streak that adds to its intensity; not entirely successful, but even a below par Denis movie is better than ones made by some movie makers operating at the top of their game.

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