Runs Fri., Nov. 15–Thurs., Nov. 21 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 83 minutes.
If Alfred Hitchcock were still alive and exploring 21st-century modes of moviemaking, would he come up with something like Bastards? The Master of Suspense changed with the times, and maybe it’s not too far-fetched to imagine him experimenting in the style operating here: a terse, elliptical, and ultimately horrifying method that withholds as much information as it doles out.
This thought passed through my mind halfway through Bastards, but make no mistake: This movie is definitely the work of French filmmaker Claire Denis (White Material, 35 Shots of Rum, Beau Travail, etc.), whose cryptic approach only adds to the film’s creeping sense of unease. The picture begins by contemplating a wall of rain, as though preparing us for how hard it will be to see and understand what’s going on. A man commits suicide on this rainy night, and his brother-in-law Marco (Vincent Lindon) quits his job as a ship’s captain in order to come home and sort things out for his deeply damaged sister (Julie Bataille) and niece (Lola Créton). Marco moves into a huge, empty apartment across the hall from a prominent businessman (Michel Subor), who lives with trophy mistress Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) and their young son. The hints that emerge about this world grow darker as the movie goes on—and are, in fact, about as dark as a family nightmare can get.
With his blunt masculinity, Lindon raises our hopes that his rugged loner can rescue the disaster. That’s what rugged loners do in movies. But Denis is aware of how the power stacks up in this situation, so the resolution is probably going to be closer to Vertigo than Rear Window. And for a movie obsessed with how difficult it is to see the truth (and how reluctant people are to acknowledge it), it is fitting that surveillance cameras and other recording devices are an almost-unnoticed fact of life—culminating in the last, terrible sequence. A final piece of evidence, knowingly recorded for a camera, confirms our worst fears. Bastards is a skillfully assembled mosaic, the work of a filmmaker fully in control of her talents; and despite the grim material, we can at least find some satisfaction in how well the tale has been told. But Claire Denis sure doesn’t make it easy on us.