Quelle Dégueulasse.

Bastards (Les salauds)
(France, 100 min.)
Dir. Claire Denis, Writ. Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis
Starring: Vincent London, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille, Michel Subor, Lola Créton.
Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Lindon in Bastards. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
Bernard: Dégueulasse.
Joan: What?
Bernard: It means "bitch." Don't you remember?
Joan: You're calling me a bitch?
Bernard: No, don't you remember the last line of Godard's À bout de souffle? Belmondo calls Seberg a bitch. Dégueulasse. We saw it at the Thalia with the Dicksteins. I got you in for the children's price. You were pregnant with Walt.
Joan: Like six weeks.
Bernard: I still got you in for a children's ticket. You told me you didn't like Godard. You thought the jumpcuts were - [He is loaded into the ambulance]
-The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Claire Denis delivers a quick n’ dirty gangster pic à la nouvelle vague with Bastards (Les salauds). It’s a piece of unconventional pulp fiction that throws the book at wise-talking gumshoes and gives the middle finger to mysteries with easy answers. Denis provides few clues as Bastards moves along. The film seems utterly pointless until it comes together with a snap and hits like a bullet.

The audience seems to be in for an art house potboiler when Bastards opens with a man lying dead on in the street and a young woman, Justine (Lola Créton from Something in the Air), traipsing lethargically on the cobblestones wearing nothing but high heels. Denis virtually abandons the murder plot—if it was even a murder at all—as the man, Justine’s father, was/is one of the many inconsequential bastards that pile up in the body count of this anarchic film. An investigation unfolds on the side when Justine’s uncle Marco (Vincent London) returns to Paris to find the man responsible for the brutal sexual assault of which Justine was a victim.

Bastards cuts from Marco’s descent into the origins of Justine’s downward spiral to a narrative that chronicles his own. Marco begins shacking up with a woman in the flat below his rental. His lover, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), is the mistress of local businessman Edouard Laporte (Michel Stupor). A bitch to his bastard, the attractive squeeze and the greedy slime ball make a most Godardianly noir pair.

Everyone in Denis’s underworld Paris is something from the shadows. There are no good people in Les salauds (save for a doctor and for Raphaëlle’s son) and every one of these inglorious bastards reveals a dark side or performs a double cross. Justine’s mother in particular turns out to be a despicable wench. The film blurs the line between victims and violators, for even Justine doesn’t get off easy in spite of the gut-wrenching abuse she endures.

By withholding a conventional detective who might rhyme off means, motive, and opportunity to put the puzzle together, Denis puts the audience in free-fall as the film comes together almost imperceptibly. The three women in Marco’s stories are of interchangeable appearance, for Justine, her mother, and Raphaëlle all share a hardened attractiveness (and similar blemishes). They could be the same woman in three different guises or three sisters in one grossly incestuous affair.

The seedy layers of the narrative’s maze reveal themselves unfolding on different levels, so what seems like the beginning transforms to the midpoint and vice versa as Denis shatters the narrative with a few jumps between clues. London keeps the film together as Marco holds the greatest air of mystery: the protagonist in one plot and the antagonist in another, Marco is a man of ambivalence and moral ambiguity. He seems like the only righteous man in the film even though his actions all seem ethically bankrupt.

Bastards defies easy answers as the viewer leaps into the unknown. Denis delivers some provocative twists and turns in this violent and aberrantly sexy picture that dehumanizes its subjects into their most basic, most self-serving urges. The gritty dankness of the film is a marvel of low-key mystery, as the film relishes ugly shadows and grainy coarseness, thus making a city in which nothing beautiful or remarkable resides.

The twisted logic of Bastards—underscored hypnotically by some repeated drives through unwieldy country roads—is mesmerizing as it builds to an unconventional climax. It’s a movie in the Godardian sense that it gives the audience both a gun and a girl. But when Denis turns a mother into a moll, Bastards shoots the auteur in the back. Quelle dégueulasse.

 Rating: ★★★½  (out of ★★★★★) 

Bastards screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Tuesday, November 5th.