I don’t want to write about this movie. It’s an overwhelming and bleak movie, the kind of film that is drowned in how awful and hopeless the world is that I find its depictions of evil, pain and suffering gaudy and grotesque. There is certainly something to be said for tragedy, but tragedies tell stories of flawed heroes that spurn on their own destruction. In Bastards, people’s are simply doomed. There’s no hope, no mercy, no glimpse of life or light.
The film seethes in anger. Marco (Vincent Lindon) is driven by it. He quits his job as a ship captain to deal with a situation with his family. His sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) has been financially ruined by a name named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) and his niece Justine (Lola Créton) has gone through a horrific amount of sexual abuse. Even at his most vulnerable, he’s spurned on by a vengance towards a Laporte by having an affair with Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), Laporte’s mistress, who happens to live in his apartment.
Everyone in this film is motivated out of some place of selfishness, greed, envy, jealousy or vengeance. These aren’t punctuated as flaws, but simply the way of the world. People use each other. In the most literal sense, this is manifested in the Justine character as she’s physically used to the point of being broken. There’s no sympathy, no hope for healing, only destruction spurning on more destruction.
Denis says in an interview about her film both that anger is a big part of how she sees the world and that the film is a response to the idea that every film has to have a happy ending. While there’s certainly something to be said about films that sugar-coat the harshness of the world, Denis presents a world so bleak, so dark, so emotionally dystopic, that there’s not a bit of goodness or beauty to be seen.
The camera and aesthetic is consistently dark and maintains this strange sense of detachment through harsh lighting and perspectives that often feel as if they’re slightly looking down on the characters. Accentuating the distance of the film, the score by Stuart Staples is this low, sinister noise that slowly builds. It’s a dissonant, electronic score that perfectly feeds into the irate emotions that brews throughout the film.
Even as a piece of storytelling, Bastards suffers from being in-between two modalities. In a lot of ways, it’s a conventional revenge story set up with the kind of contrivances that give the anti-hero a way to get close and tear things apart from the inside out. On the other hand, it’s paced and constructed with arthouse sensibilities by failing to explain certain character psychologies. The problem is that we get a good sense of Marco’s motivations but none of Raphaëlle’s psychology, leaving certain beats in the story dissonant and inexplicable.
Returning again to the anger in this film because it’s the element that I find the most frustrating, problematic and isolating, it ends up feeling somewhat pointless by the end. This might have more to do with my personal views as I often find anger a very unhelpful emotion, one that does far more harm than good, and this film frothing anger feels way more harmful than anything else. It feeds cynicism, distrust, and disdain for the world with no reprieve.
Worst of all, the film leaves the audience at a place of implication. After witnessing all these events, it has the audacity to turn it all on us and ask why we would watch such horrible things. What’s wrong with you? You’re just as bad as the people you’re watching for witnessing this story. It’s a violating accusation, one that leaves the audience loathing themselves for what they’ve been shown.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing