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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 11.26.13] France thriller drama

There's no softening the blow of Claire Denis' Bastards. The director who has made a name for herself with beautiful movies which tackle difficult material returns with a tale of planned revenge that ranks among some of the most twisted I've seen and though not quite on the level of Irreversible, the two movies do share a similar emotional devastation.

Vincent Lindon stars as Marco, a ship's captain who abandons his post after receiving a call from his sister informing him that his best friend and brother-in-law has committed suicide. He returns to Paris to care for his sister and young niece only to discover that the family business has fallen to creditors, that his friend borrowed heavily from a shady business man named Laporte and that his niece has been drugged and brutally raped. Essentially, Marco's family is falling apart and he's charged with putting the pieces back together.

Marco moves into the building where Laporte lives and strikes up a relationship with the businessman's wife Raphaëlle. At first it seems Marco is doing so as a way to exact revenge on Laporte but as the details of the situation unravel, Marco's motives become less clear. He's trying to uncover the truth about his niece, a truth which turns out to be far more twisted than anyone could have anticipated, but his feelings for Raphaëlle seem authentic and not the product of some grand plan for revenge.

In the end, the good things about Bastards are also the most frustrating, namely the movie's vagueness with details and the lack of resolution for Marco. He seems to be making progress towards his revenge plan and at one point, we even get a glimpse of that plan through a dream, but the plan never materializes and for that matter, it never seems to start. There's also the strange relationship Marco shares with his sister which leads to a number of nuanced exchanges that feel like they have a far deeper connection than the events that are unfolding in the present but Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau don't reveal any of their history which leaves the relationship hanging. It's that same lack of details and history that adversely affects some of the other relationships, particularly that of Marco and Raphaëlle.

The one place that Bastards doesn't miss is in the chemistry between Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni as Raphaëlle. From the moment the two see each other it's like the entire world stops and focuses on them. Denis and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Agnès Godard, capture the sex scenes with an intimacy that makes them a little uncomfortable to watch, much more so than the much buzzed about extended scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color (review) but where Abdellatif Kechiche's are just long, Denis' are intense and the camera gets so close to Lindon and Mastroianni that it feels like we're right there with them. Lindon and Mastroianni are like firecrackers, you can almost see the strings connecting them and it's even more apparent when the pair pretend to avoid each other. That cat and mouse game gets old in most sexual thrillers but here the stakes seem far higher and the fact that the pair are like magnets only intensifies their relationship.

Denis provides more than enough material to turn the stomach but Bastards is far more impressive once you step back and look at what Denis has presented. It's not what's on screen that really troubles, though there is some of that, but rather what's no on screen. Bastards' most horrifying scenes and themes are never out rightly spoken but only implied and the final scene is a perfect example: Denis doesn't show us the act but just enough for us to put the pieces together and feel traumatized for a few days.

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