The latest film by director Claire Denis (Chocolat, 35 Shots of Rum, White Material) plays like an art-house version of a ripped-from-the-headlines neo-noir. Drawing inspiration from recent sex ring scandals in her native Paris, the provocative French auteur opens the picture with arresting images of a naked, bloody young girl (Lola Créton, the radiant star of Goodbye First Love and Something in the Air) walking zombie-like through dark and dirty streets. But this is not a true-crime thriller or police procedural; the story quickly shifts focus to a commercial sea captain, played by Vincent Lindon (Denis’ Friday Night), leaving his post to attend to a family emergency. Lindon becomes the central character of this dark and sometimes frustratingly elliptical picture that nonetheless retains the power to get under our skin and leave us with many disturbing images.
Denis has never been the kind of filmmaker who spells things out for her audience. In the case of Bastards, we are literally in the dark for much of the movie, as most of it takes place at night or in grey, rain swept afternoons--quite different from the sundrenched exteriors of her African set films. She also leaves it up to us to piece together the fragmented storyline, much in the way Lindon’s character, Marco, must. He may not be a private eye, but Marco has all the hard-boiled qualities of a noir protagonist--tough, observant, quiet, and in over his head. Unfortunately, the convoluted structure of the narrative makes the upsetting themes concerning power, dominance and victimization a bit too difficult to fully comprehend, and structural inconsistencies get in the way of the story. Bastards’ is a film in which individual scenes and shots are pregnant with menace and mystery, but the film ends up being less than the sum of its parts.