Many of the films directed by French auteur Claire Denis are defined by their dreamy, elliptical editing. They’re defined by the way she fractures scenes, and presents them in bite-sized pieces dispersed throughout the whole of a film. Her editing style allows her to break our focus away from narrative. She forces us to focus on images instead: We take them in "pure," rather than as the delivery system for a story. Edited chronologically, her latest, "Bastards," may have appeared to be little more than a potboiler. Her aesthetic, however, tells us otherwise.
One of the first images she shows us is of French ingénue Lola Creton ("Something in the Air," "Goodbye First Love,") walking, haunted, through the streets; her body naked save for a pair of pumped-up heels and the blood flowing down her legs. It’s a visual Denis will return to for the entirety of her film’s running time; one whose origin she reveals at the conclusion. "Bastards" is not a cinema poem, like her "Beau Travail" was. It’s a puzzle box. It’s anchored by a metatextual reference to Faulkner’s "Sanctuary," and, much like that novel, Denis’ latest could potentially be written off as an over-stylized trip through the scuzzy side of rich, white masculinity. In narrative terms, that’s exactly what it is.
Marco (Vincent Lindon) emerges quickly as the audience’s surrogate, yet his actions render him as yet another bastard quickly enough. He returns to French shores from his job as a ship captain when his sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille), informs her of her family’s latest predicament: Laporte, her late husband’s wealthy ex-business partner, is holding ambiguous control over her and her daughter Justine (Cretton.) Marco dives into the conspiracy, finding a complex web of sexual abuse and pedophilia without ever fully understanding what he’s seeing.
Those facts aren’t even clear to us as we move through the film, however; the scenes are chopped up and divorced from traditional storytelling modes to near-impressionistic levels. Denis holds her camera on evocative, shadowy images that force us to read the film in terms of tone and mood rather than narrative. It’s hard to follow her labyrinthine plotting when you’re so overwhelmed by menacing, almost-pitch-black images of battered women, of rough sex, of schoolyards menaced by predators, and of the leering evil of rich white men. She doesn’t want you to follow her film, and she disconnects her scenes to ensure that; she wants you to feel it instead.
By the end of the picture she has revealed how the bastards of the title have collaborated - intentionally and otherwise - to destroy Sandra, her daughter, and her family. Yet, that reveal brings no release. There’s no escape from the evil of men in this universe, no getting to the bottom of their psyche. There’s simply cruelty, darkness, and destruction. All her women can do to survive is rely on their cunning for as long as they can, until the inevitably violent forces of men-with-money claim them, and rob them of their inherent humanity, in the name of carnal desire.