Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I'm way behind #18: Bastards (Claire Denis)

While skimming a few recent interviews with Claire Denis on the Internet, I was probably more shocked than I should have been to read that the writer/director was 67 years old. I knew her career trajectory. I knew that Denis didn't direct her first film until she was in her early forties, in the late 1980s, and I knew she'd been an assistant director and occasional casting director for 15 years before making her own films. (She was the casting director on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and worked as an assistant director for Dusan Makavejev, Eduardo de Gregorio, Costa-Gavras, Clive Donner, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders, among others.) Her age shouldn't have jumped up and bit me so fiercely, but there are a few reasons why it did. Generally, her films have so much energy, creativity, curiosity, and openness to experience they feel like the work of someone much younger (minus the naivete). More personally and selfishly, her age made me realize there will be a finite number of Claire Denis films, and a finite Claire Denis. She is at or near the top of my list of favorite living filmmakers, and I want her to keep making films forever, or at least as long as I'm still breathing.
Denis has astonishing range, but her body of work is cohesive, connected, and recognizably hers. Though the films are quite different from each other in subject matter, genre, tone, mood, and intensity, they share common structural and narrative traits, particularly their elliptical narratives and an emphasis on character over plot. Denis often begins her films in the middle of the action, thrusting the audience into the characters' lives before we know who they are, how they are related to each other, and why those relationships are important. Denis often ends scenes before giving her audience a firm grasp on them, and she plays with chronology without the typical markers viewers rely on for navigation when a director plays with the timeline. This can be initially disorienting, with a narrative that can be fragmentary and slippery, but an open-minded, active viewer will be rewarded in ways beyond conventional filmmaking's limited pleasures. I find myself more engaged and invested in Denis' films and characters than in the work of most other contemporary filmmakers, and I'm endlessly fascinated by their enduring mysteries. I leave the theater energized, alive with the possibilities of cinema and never drained, even when her films are emotionally distressing or disturbing (and Bastards is most definitely both of these things).
I'm afraid my description of Denis' films in the previous paragraph may make them sound like work, like a chore, or like that horrible phrase writer Dan Kois coined to describe his own limited imagination, "cultural vegetables," (i.e., art that is good for you but not pleasurable). Denis' films are full of pleasures, the pleasures of faces, bodies, landscapes, music, movement, light, shadow, vivid color, human behavior, storytelling, acting, and the ways these elements interact with each other. She knows how to look, really look, at almost everything, and her films value sensuousness and detached, careful, nonjudgmental observation over the sentimentality, bombast, easily defined characterizations, and manufactured emotions of mainstream filmmaking. Denis' characters are white, black, old, middle-aged, young, straight, gay, male, female, wealthy, middle class, poor, immigrants, colonizers, natives, rural, urban, leaders, subordinates, abusers, abused, open, withdrawn, violent, and kind, and Denis watches them all with the same detached, detailed understanding. I can't think of another director so capable of creating and observing so many different lives without a false note or a blind spot.
Setting aside the Denis films I haven't yet seen (No Fear, No Die; U.S. Go Home; The Intruder), I'm left with an amazing body of work: Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp movie), a semi-autobiographical, leisurely paced, sun-baked drama about a French girl's childhood in colonial Cameroon, with an emphasis on her interactions with the family's houseboy and its parallels and dissonances with France's colonial relationship to Africa; I Can't Sleep, a strange, exciting blend of eccentric ensemble drama and thriller about several different lives in Paris converging due to their mutual connections to a serial killer (or killers) of elderly women; Nenette et Boni, a love letter to Paris and young people with elements of drama, comedy, and suspense about a young man's reconnection with his estranged teenage half-sister after the death of their mother; Beau Travail, an avant-garde adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd with a complex visual structure that combines Denis' female-gaze aesthetic appreciation of the male figure's physicality and movement, the homoeroticism underpinning masculine ritual and macho conflict, the ghostly process of decolonization, and the complexities of male friendship and respect with one of the most incredible, unexpected, and ecstatic final scenes I've had the fortune to witness; Trouble Every Day, a violent, bloody, confrontational, and very physical take on the vampire myth and the horror movie, full of memorable, beautiful images; Friday Night, a deceptively light comedic romance about Paris, music, traffic jams, first dates, new attractions, and lust; 35 Shots of Rum, a finely detailed character study of the friendship between a widow and his adult daughter and the fellow apartment building residents, on-again/off-again romantic partners, and coworkers that dip in and out of their daily lives, inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; and White Material, another look at the messy end of French colonialism in Africa, this time in the guise of a violent, neo-noir thriller. I love every one of these films.
Which brings me to Bastards. This may be the toughest Denis film to love, because what it shows us is so painful and dark, and because it denies us any light. Denis has called this film a response to the parade of films in which characters commit terrible acts of violence, abuse, and atrocity but find redemption in the end. Denis says redemption is an invention of the movies, and she wanted to make a film that challenged that trope. Oh man, is Bastards that film.
But before these ideas even took shape, Denis just wanted to work with actor Vincent Lindon again. Denis is loyal to collaborators, often using Agnes Godard as her cinematographer and the British band Tindersticks as the composer of her films' scores (they return for Bastards), and she's amassed an impressive troupe of returning actors (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri, the late Yekaterina Golubeva), but until last year, Lindon was on the equally impressive list of actors Denis has only worked with once (Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant, Ingrid Caven, Francois Cluzet, Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurore Clement). Lindon was the co-star of Denis' lightest film, Friday Night, along with French pop singer Valerie Lemercier, and he's the sympathetic center of Bastards, Denis' darkest. 
Lindon plays Marco, a sailor called back to Paris for a family crisis. His younger sister's family is falling apart. His brother-in-law has committed suicide, and his teenage niece is in the hospital after suffering a sexual assault that saw her drugged and wandering nude in the street. His sister tells him the family business has fallen apart, thanks to unscrupulous behavior by an investor and partner named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a powerful businessman with political connections. Marco has vague plans for revenge and moves into the same apartment complex as Laporte's mistress and illegitimate son. He begins a relationship with the mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and does some digging to find out what happened to his niece, his brother-in-law, and the family business. What he discovers is dark, terrible, and close to home.
Bastards is sometimes hard to watch and harder to shake and should be approached with caution if you or a loved one have ever been the victim of sexual abuse, but I have no reservations about calling it a great film. Denis is working at her peak formally and stylistically, and I can't find words that will do her images justice. The film, though difficult and at times emotionally disturbing, is also dreamy and seductive, haunting and menacing. The actors commit to their parts honestly and intensely. Tindersticks come up with one of their most successful scores, finding a sonic correlative to the film's contradictory powers of seduction and menace, unease and allure. Not even a pinhole of light pushes through this time, but Claire Denis has made another vital, living film.

I've embedded my favorite piece of Tindersticks' music from the film, their transformative cover of Hot Chocolate's disco-pop song "Put Your Love in Me," below because I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of the film than my fumbling attempts to describe it.

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