Heaps of high heels. A naked girl wandering through a city street. A blood-stained corn on the cob. A pulsing, tensing Tindersticks soundtrack… Yes, you’ve guessed it: here’s the latest impeccably brooding enigma from the imagination of Claire Denis. Though less confounding than some of Denis’s work (2004’s The Intruder still takes that particular prize), the none-too-invitingly titled Bastards (Les Salauds) certainly takes its place as one of Denis’s darkest and most disturbing offerings to date. Almost classical in its tragic underpinnings, the movie constantly unpicks its weave to create something that feels disorientating and discordant in an entirely contemporary way.
Referencing Japanese cinema as she did in the considerably warmer-toned, Ozu-inspired 35 Shots of Rum (2008) (here the allusion is to the noir films of Akira Kurosawa), Bastards is, at its heart, a revenge thriller. Vincent Lindon plays Marco, a supertanker-captain who’s called back to Paris by his desperate sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) to help sort out some pressing problems. The seriously strung-out Sandra places the blame for her family’s woes—which include financial disaster, her husband’s suicide and the exploitation of her teenage daughter Justine (Lola Créton)—squarely at the door of the weathly businessman Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). Marco ends up moving into the building occupied by Laporte’s mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and it’s not long before he’s bonding with her son and Laporte’s son and starting an intense affair with Raphaelle herself. But Marco isn’t prepared for some of the skeleton’s rattling around in his own family’s closet.
It’s a pretty straightforward premise, then, but this being Denis-land very little is delivered straightfowardly. Instead of hammering home plot points the movie circles around its characters with rapt intensity—scrutinising gestures, looks, skin tones (the moles on Mastroianni’s face haven't received this much loving attention since, well… since Christophe Honoré filmed them in Beloved (2011)), all of which are rendered with delectable edgy vibrancy by Agnés Godard’s characteristically superb cinematography. If there’s not so much as a scrap of humour to sweeten the pill, Denis does incorporate some fond, humane touches that mitigate the movie’s overall bleakness a tad: even if it’s just the blue icing that Raphaelle uses when she makes a cake for her son at one point.
Reuniting with Denis for the first time since 2003’s Friday Night Lindon delivers a commanding, if terminally po-faced, turn as the movie’s Toshiro Mifune figure: hero and victim combined. The intense Bataille, the otherwordly Créton, a reliably serpentine Subor and Mastroianni—fearless and ever more Susan Sarandon-esque—are vivid in support. (Never fear: there are also cameos for the director’s male muses Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin, too.) The movie demands the patience and commitment that all Denis’s work requires. But those who persist (and there were a number of walkouts during the TIFF screening last September) are rewarded by a hypnotic last quarter, including an extraordinary, inimitably Denis final flourish—heinous grainy images accompanied by Tindersticks’s bewitchingly twitchy take on Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love in Me”—that dispenses a chill which the thoroughly discomfited viewer struggles to shake off.