Bastards: Claire Denis’ Probes into Patriarchy

Claire Denis, the brilliant French director, never seems to do exactly the same thing twice. Her new film, “Bastards,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Fest in May, is worlds away from the politically charged “White Material” (2009), her previous triumph, in terms of setting and style.

But her thematic concerns carry through. “Bastards,” a dysfunctional-family-business-Paris noir, is another chapter in her examination of patriarchy—and a cruel chapter. It is as if the violent act at the close of “White Material” has bloomed into a whole garden of ugliness, as her women characters struggle to find safety in le monde sexiste.

The narrative is elliptical here, as in most of Denis’s films, but this time the story itself becomes somewhat irrelevant. This is a film where the mood and visuals take over and push the storyline to the side. While the grim nature of this film links it to her dark and controversial vampire film, “Trouble Every Day” (2001), the new film also feels somehow closely related to her narrative-lite, Paris-set “Friday Night” (2002), which also prominently featured “Bastards” lead Vincent Lindon.

Written by Denis with her longtime writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, “Bastards” focuses on a family in free fall. The family’s vaguely outlined business associations with a Dominique Strauss-Kahn type (Michel Subor) has turned truly toxic and may be what is ultimately pulling the family down.

A loner type, Marco (Lindon) has become the new paterfamilias, when his brother-in-law (Laurent Grevill) kills himself. Returning from the high seas, where he was an oil-tanker captain, Marco must watch over his unstable, newly widowed sister (Julie Bataille), his mysteriously hospitalized and unreachable niece (Lola Creton), and the family shoe factory, which is in near total disarray.

Marco moves into an apartment by himself in the same building where the business titan happens to house a glamorous mistress (Chiara Mastroianni) and their boy (Yann Antoine Bizette). Is it a coincidence? Apparently seeking revenge, Marco maneuvers Raphaelle into bed, and Denis again gets to show off her talent for sex scenes with a welcome rawness, as in “Friday Night.”

It becomes increasingly clear that this is Denis in David Lynch or Michael Haneke territory, especially when Marco investigates a sinister barn outside the city, where rough sex games have been taking place involving his traumatized niece.

Of course, none of this is going to end well, and Denis, as in “White Material,” ends the film on a rather shocking note. But one has to wonder if there isn’t some humor at work here: the wicked humor often evident in films like “Blue Velvet” (1986) or “Mulholland Drive” (2001), “The Piano Teacher” (2001) or “Funny Games” (1997/2007), or Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” (1962), “Clockwork Orange” (1971), or “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).

Could Denis be enjoying the wickedness she is able to wield so confidently now? This is not the kind of film women directors are “supposed to” be making. Is she having some fun here in upending the expectations and perhaps showing the male directors a thing or two?

For Denis fans, part of the pleasure of her movies now is how adeptly she keeps tinkering with her own personal Mercury Theater, using the same actors again and again but always in new ways. In addition to Subor and Lindon, other Denis regulars like Alex Descas, this time a somber doctor, and Gregor Colin, this time an evil pimp, reappear. She also continues to work with the band Tindersticks, this time building the score around a wonderfully spooky version of the Hot Chocolate song “Put Your Love in Me.”

Most impressive is the cinematography of Agnes Godard, who has also often worked with Denis. There is not a wasted shot in the film, Godard pulling off a sleek, sexy, surfacey look that matches the chilly goings on.

While “Bastards” makes for a revealing addition to the Denis canon, it is more intriguing than involving, more of a curiosity than anything conclusive. None of the characters become that sympathetic, and piecing the story together is not nearly as challenging or rewarding as it has been in past Denis films, like “The Intruder” (2002).

Denis’s two previous films, “White Material” and “35 Shots of Rum” (2008), were among her most engaging and expansive, with considerable warmth and a concern for social issues coming through loud and clear. By comparison, “Bastards” comes off as nihilistic, narrow, and sealed-off—in many ways, as shallow, as damaged, as hopeless as its characters. But it sure is a great setup for Denis’s next film, which is likely to go in another direction entirely.