Terrible things can happen in environments that allow people to step-back from consequences; this is the first step in most types of crime and film noir pictures. But to simply place Claire Denis’ latest film, Bastards (2014), into one of these categories just for the ease of categorisation does it little justice. Denis’ film has more to its narrative than its surface layer shadow but presents a whole host of visual ideas that, in essence, explain the deeply disturbing corruption and rot at the heart of the film’s narrative evils.
Like anything even remotely Chandler-esque, characters are moving or perhaps even encircling and orbiting around a central problem. For Denis, this is a problem of an event, crossing social and legal boundaries with the gradual waves of repercussion finding their way to other characters in the film. It’s a vein richly mined, Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) being a perfect example, though Denis is far more vague in what boundary has exactly been crossed. It takes all of the pieces of the film to work out the sleazy oil from the water.
But Denis isn’t interested in simply filming these characters and these empty spaces. The whole film spends a great deal of time showing a desolate, blank Paris as if the camera enjoys revelling in potential darkness that such a social freedom can summon up. This is the same blank Paris, with its empty, spacious flats, rich but possession-less people, and beige walls and pavements that lead to the blackmailing in Haneke’s Hidden (2005). Video tapes aren’t haunting our characters this time around but instead we’ve moved onto SD cards which house evidence of the great, encircling past.
In spite of this spaciousness, the film is filled with objects – odd, little things that show tiny hints that behind some of the blank faces is an interest or at least a sense of ideas besides those of basic living. Marco ( Vincent Lindon), having just returned from his isolated trailer ship, houses himself in a typically Parisian space, filling it with a mattress, some expensive shirts and a watch. He travels around in a vintage car and these things stick out, quite simply because they’re the only sparks of personality which seem left to these people. Their world is so unbearably distant that it’s not surprising horrific things happen.
Amongst this oily nightmare is Denis’ camera which varies between intensely personal and dreamlike ambivalence. Characters are allowed very little privacy, from either the diegetic or the nondiegetic cameras. Denis’ becomes so close to the characters’ faces that it almost goads them into revealing the truth behind the masquerade of the narrative though they never really crack. It even seemingly pushes Marco, trying to get him to succumb to sleeping with a prostitute when walking a street in the darker side of town, such is the character of the viewer’s eye. Denis’ camera never gets to the truth behind the mystery; that is instead left for the characters’ technology. The ever evasive set of CCTV, the voyeuristic optional cameras in the seedy barn where some monstrosity of event is performed, and the previously mentioned SD cards- seemingly the time-bomb to blow open the lie.
They wait and meander around for this bomb as if in a trance. The victim escapes from hospital, wandering the night streets in high heels, naked, and bleeding from the crotch. It’s almost a dream, waiting for the sharp intake of breath that alleviates the stress of its endless barrage of tortures but it never comes. Except of course in the final sleep that several characters opt for, both as a relief and as a saviour to others.
When the fallout occurs, we’re there to witness it in full. The objects which already seemed so sparse and odd become crumpled. A crashed car, its enjoyably busy spokes being the only part left that resembles some twisted form of beauty, is an apt allegory for the relationships left standing in the film. And then of course the cob of corn; a seemingly innocent piece of thrown away food crop, spattered with blood and hinting at some form of terrible subversion. It’s as ominous as the cum stains on the most uninviting mattress in Paris; uncovered wires hanging above it and the corpse of Romanticism lying stagnant in this cold digital, barn for voyeurs.
Bastards is not a puzzle in the traditional sense. The viewer is left to fill in the gaps hinted at by the uncomfortable grainy footage but there is little pleasure in its solving. The viewer takes part in this subversion in order to finally solve the inky riddle but, by doing so, they knowingly plunge themselves into the film’s stinking depths and rarely come out clean and unsullied. It begs the question whether ignorance was perhaps the better, less violent path. Curiosity, however, is always a weak point in the blank utopia of the modern-day metropolises.