The first twenty minutes of Claire Denis' latest film Bastards (2013) is enigmatic as a seemingly constant flow of unfamiliar faces and circumstances arise. The narrative is simplistic in its complexity, it lacks flash and emotional attachment (regardless of the content), and the visual style of the film lacks those qualities as well. As Bastards progresses, the film only goes further and further into the realm of the depraved, and the filmmaker seems to go with it as well.The brother-in-law of Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon) has committed suicide after the financial collapse of the shoe business he inherited from his wife's father, so Marco quits his job as a navy captain so that he can help his sister and her teenage daughter get through this troubling time. To further help his family, Marco also hopes to find (and possibly kill) the man responsible for the financial collapse of the company - a wealthy elderly man named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). Upon arriving at his new flat, which is in the same building as Laporte, Marco meets Laporte's young and beautiful wife (Chiara Mastroianni) and they begin to romantically gravitate towards one another. All of these actions and encounters are mysterious, but they all prove to Marco that he can't trust anyone.
What's brilliant and fresh about this film is its detachment from emotion, and brutal honesty. The dialogue in Bastards, particularly from the character Marco, is only the bare essentials - there's little room for verbal flourishes in this dark dramatic-thriller. Visually, the film possesses that same honesty as characters live and breathe as normal humans - there is very little that feels staged or simulated, which is special and exciting. In the same way, there are some very graphic and disturbing moments that take place on the screen - and in one case, a moment that is visually hinted at that is so horrifying that we hope to never see it but end up being forced to endure it. However, the absolute final scene of the film is troubling in a few different ways (I won't give away what happens), but it feels unnecessarily provocative in comparison to the subdued and matter-of-fact stylings of all the scenes that lead up to it - even the music is different.
To accent this dark and brooding thriller is crisp digital photography (this being Claire Denis' first film to shoot digitally). There is no sign in quality that this is the case, but the film appears as though only natural and available light was used, but this particular style enhances the raw nature of the screenplay (co-written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau). Some of the dialogue feels clunky at times (though it may have been a strange subtitle translation that might take some looking into by its US distributor Sundance Selects), but beyond that the dialogue and moments between Marco and Laporte's wife are mesmerizing in their authenticity.
Though Bastards has its imperfections, it's a breath of wicked fresh air that has been lacking from cinema this year. The core set of characters are like grounded versions of people you would encounter in a David Lynch film, and it's that real-life quality that makes them (and the situations) even more frightening.
My ranking: 4/5 stars