Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Spotlight Cinema, tonight (Thursday, December 5) at 7:00 p.m. You may recall my earlier post about their screening of Museum Hours, and programmers Tom Yoshikami and Mike King continue to do a great job bringing in films that deserve longer commercial runs in Madison.
Claire Denis has had a prolific career since her directorial debut, Chocolate, in 1988. I think my favorite of her films has been Beau Travail from 1999, which combined a deliberate pace with attention to textures and details. I also admired her art-horror film Trouble Every Day (2001) with Vincent Gallo, which for one reason or another remains difficult to access on video in the U.S. At the moment her 2009 feature, White Material, is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.
Bastards (or Les Salauds) starts with an elliptical sequence of a man in his office during a rain storm. In its simplicity, the shot of the man standing in the foreground as the rain falls heavily outside the window in the background is one of the most gorgeous shots I've seen in a while. The opening sequence also sets the stage for the kind of work the audience will have to do to piece together cues provided in a more cryptic style of visual storytelling. We quickly piece together that the man has committed suicide, and that his daughter Justine (Lola Créton) has been mysteriously traumatized. In another elliptical sequence we meet the main protagonist of the film, Marco (Vincent Lindon), who learns of the death of his best friend and brother-in-law and abandons his position as a cargo ship captain to return to his sister and his traumatized niece. The best parts of the opening act of Bastards work almost like a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller: spare dialogue, characters focused on quick, distinct actions, and just enough room for the audience put all the pieces together.
Marco learns from his sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille) that she suspects the wealthy Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) of using her daughter as a kind of sex slave. A month later, Marco moves into an apartment in the building where Laporte lives with his mistress Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) and their young son. It doesn't take long for Marco and Raphaëlle to notice each other. In one great sequence, Marco leans over to help the young boy fix his bicycle chain, and Raphaëlle notices the muscles thinly veiled under Marco's expensive white shirt. One of the several strengths of Bastards is the great chemistry between Lindon and Mastrioanni; their characters have the kind of intense sexual energy that only unhappy people can share.
The balance of the movie follows Marco as he investigates what happened to Justine and possibly contemplates some kind of revenge against Laporte. In the process, Marco must sacrifice almost everything he cares about to reconnect with a family that he had deliberately distanced himself from years ago. What he discovers is perhaps needlessly over-the-top. Denis seems to have a preoccupation with violently traumatized vaginas; I recall two women jumping out of their seat and immediately leaving the theater during a particularly gory scene in Trouble Every Day. And the ending might be a bit too perfect a fusion of art film ambiguity and film noir genre conventions. But throughout the film you feel like you are being guided by a talented visual storyteller and her committed cast working in peak form.
Posters and Synopses from The Movie Database
Container ship captain Marco Silvestri is called urgently back to Paris. His sister, Sandra, is desperate; her husband has committed suicide, the family business has gone under, her daughter has been admitted into psychiatric care. Sandra accuses the powerful businessman Edouard Laporte of being responsible. Determined to find the businessman's weak spot and exact a terrible revenge for the violence done to his family, Marco moves into the building where Laporte's mistress, Raphaëlle, lives with her son.
Maria is a White farmer who runs a failing coffee plantation in an unnamed African country in the present day. Civil war has broken out and rebel soldiers, many of them child soldiers, are advancing on the area. Rebels on the radio advocate attacks on emblems of colonialism. Maria's workers leave, but she refuses to abandon the plantation, and searches for men to finish harvesting of the coffee.