This piece was published to tie in with our screening of Bastards on 21/06/2023
“Perhaps it is upon the instant that we realise, admit, that there is a logical pattern to evil, that we die” - William Faulkner, Sanctuary
Bastards is a swirling black tar pit of a film, exploring the treacherous world of elite corruption and abuse through an obtuse, blinkered perspective. Like Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (released one year later), Bastards is clearly inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, using a similarly grim digital aesthetic to depict the moral void of upper-class cruelty. Yet, while it's hard not to think of Strauss-Kahn, Jeffrey Epstein, or the rest of their cadre, Bastards is not a ripped-from-the-headlines piece of exploitation - it's an opaque work of needling provocation, often as confounding as it is disturbing.
In 1990’s No Fear, No Die, Denis swapped boxing for cockfighting in her noir-influenced exploration of the African immigrant experience. Denis would continually return to genre, noir especially, throughout her career - with Trouble Every Day fusing horror and science fiction with a noirish patina to create a grotesque, feverish examination of human desire. Denis likes to take familiar pieces - stock characters and premises - only to reshuffle them in ways that eschew expectations. In Trouble Every Day, the experiment gone wrong that begets the cannibal disease afflicting Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle’s characters bears the hallmarks of both classic horror (a hubristic scientist using themself as subject), and more gruesome contemporary influences (the outrageously bloody scene in which Dalle’s feral femme fatale devours a young male victim.) Yet, the thrills are unconventional - and Denis is more interested in drilling deep into ideas like taboo rather than pleasing the midnight movie crowd.
Likewise, Bastards deals in archetypes - giving us a competent, physically strong male hero - played with haunted intensity by Vincent Lindon, a young girl in mortal danger (Lola Créton) a beautiful woman with unclear allegiances (Chiara Mastrioanni), and an ogreish villain - a sinister business tycoon (Michel Subor, relishing dialogue that includes lines like “I love Joseph. He is my last living seed.”) But, we are a long way from Hollywood, and Denis has little concern for traditional thriller mechanics. While the camera may linger on Marco’s lats straining against his white shirt while he fixes a boy's bike - offering a desirous image of masculine reassurance - Marco is fundamentally outmached by the forces he seeks to oppose, something that becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses. This pessimism is a hallmark of classic noir, but Denis pushes further into increasingly troubling terrain.
Lola Créton plays Justine, Marco’s niece, whose involvement in sex parties at an isolated farmhouse in the countryside has left her with severe injuries. The house and the particular horrors contained within are lifted from the pages of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (although Denis claims she saw such a place herself in rural Texas). Published in 1931, Sanctuary is a pulpy Southern gothic nightmare - dismissed by Faulkner as populist trash.
Nevertheless, it's a formidable examination of how evil, class and abuse intersect: a logical touchstone for Bastards. Sanctuary concerns the kidnapping and rape of a wealthy college student named Temple Drake during the prohibition era. Her abuser is impotent, owing to a sickness incurred in childhood. His use of a corncob as a surrogate sexual organ forms a key plot point, one that Denis alludes to in Bastards.
Seen through Marco’s perspective, Justine is a straightforward victim. In his eyes, her father’s boss (Subor) is responsible for the family’s woes - becoming the sole target for his revenge mission. But Justine isn’t so easily understood. Throughout the film, the image of her outstretched hand becomes an ambiguous motif. At one point it is easily read as a call for help - elsewhere, it's less clear. In the film’s closing scene, as the grainy digital image of Justine’s hand fills the screen, Tindersticks’ moody cover of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Put Your Love In Me’ dominates the soundscape. The song’s lyrics, eerie but sexually charged, contribute to the ambiguity of what exactly we’re seeing. Is Justine purely the passive subject Marco believes her to be? Mute throughout most of the film, she speaks just one line that contributes to this uneasy sense of doubt: “I love him.” Whatever psychological rewiring Justine has experienced is clearly deeply rooted and Denis is very much concerned with how power is used to manufacture complicity.
Impotence lies at the heart of Bastards. An image of a naked older man, frail and balding, toying with his flaccid penis before participating in an unspeakable sexual act for Laporte’s satisfaction forms Denis’s bold denouement. Marco, though virile in the literal sense, finds himself impotent when faced with the insidious power wielded by his nemesis. During his confrontation with Laporte, his gun is wrestled from his grip and turned against him. Power, potency, and agency can all be snuffed out or redirected according to the desires of men like Laporte. Anyone beneath him is dehumanised, reduced to a functionary in his quest for personal gratification. Even his (perhaps genuine) love for his son, clearly stems from a narcissistic fixation on bloodline preservation.
Denis’s films are full of fathers. While this can vary from the complex but fundamentally loving father-daughter dynamics of 35 Shots of Rum to the creeping suggestion of incest in High-Life, Bastards is a film dominated by patriarchs – absent, surrogate, or perverse. Marco moves towards Laporte by inserting himself into his son’s life, representing a kind of rugged vitality a world away from the vampiric Laporte. The film's final scene represents the ultimate perversion of the family unit, while also implying a kind of catharsis for the mother, as she finally confronts the reality of her situation.
Bastards is a profoundly sinister film and easily one of Denis’s bleakest works. A potent mix of political polemic and genre experiment, Bastards is a labyrinthine exploration of the infectious capacities of power and capital. Though less visceral than forebearers like Salò (a film it took three attempts for Denis to sit through in its entirety), the horrors of Bastards are equally hard to shake. Depicting a world fundamentally rotten through and through, Bastards is a film that has only grown in stature since its release.