Claire Denis is the greatest filmmaker currently working
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: A few things I believe: Twitter is responsible for an erosion of public rhetoric generally, and of critical discourse in particular. Wagyu beef has no place in a hamburger. Anyone who prefaces a statement with the phrase 'I’m a people person’ is invariably a sociopath. Claire Denis is the greatest filmmaker currently working.
A propos the last of these: consider her body of work (and, after 11 features and a couple of documentaries, I think that term is more than justified): from her extraordinarily assured 1988 debut Chocolat—shamefully, the only time she’s been represented in Competition at Cannes—she’s offered a uniquely marginal perspective on contemporary French society, replete with questions of racial identity and colonial legacy. (The daughter of a civil servant, Denis was raised in various French-administered nations in West Africa: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal; when forced to return to Europe as a teenager, she found that she 'knew nothing about’ her homeland.) From unimpeachable masterpieces like Beau Travail—for my money, the most perfect feature film of the past two decades—and White Material and J’ai pas sommeil, down to smaller, though not minor works (Vendredi soir, the Ozu-inflected 35 rhums) which most directors would be proud to cite as the crowning achievements of their filmographies.
And then there are the outliers—strange, unashamedly morbid works like Trouble Every Day (2001), a minimalist take on genre cinema that seemed to prefigure the mid-00’s renaissance of French body-horror, startling, blood-drenched movies like Martyrs and A l’intérieur and Haute Tension. Or L’intrus, her 2005 'metaphysical epic’, about a man without a heart (actually, in need of a transplant) searching the world for his missing son—still her most maddening and ambiguous work: an odd, defiantly lyrical jumble of images and themes. Flawed, yes—but proud of its flaws, unashamed of the barriers they presented to understanding or acceptance. A work almost revelling, in fact, in its own gorgeous inscrutability.
Bastards belongs to this category. For it, she reunites with most of her usual artistic collaborators: cinematographer Agnès Godard, co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, costume designer Judy Shrewsbury, composer Stuart Staples, of the band Tindersticks. Her cast, too, are drawn from old friends, members of her stock company: Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas, Michel Subor, Vincent Lindon. It has something of the feeling of Danny Ocean, rounding up the old gang for one more heist—except that, this time, it’s never quite clear what’s up for grabs, or by whom.
A businessman, Jacques, commits suicide. His wife Sandra is interviewed by the police, in footage intercut with scenes of a young girl—their daughter Justine, we later learn—wandering naked and bloodied through a city’s streets, having recently suffered a sexual assault. The teenager winds up in a private clinic, her mind and body permanently damaged by the attack.
We then cut forward a month (though at the time, there’s no way of knowing this), to the arrival of Marco, Sandra’s brother, who returns to Paris to help her settle Jacques’ affairs. The dead man, he soon discovers, was heavily in debt to a powerful tycoon, Edouard Leporte, and Marco begins renting an apartment in the same building in which Laporte keeps his younger mistress, Raphaelle. His plan is simple: he intends to seduce her and, in so doing, get sufficiently close to Laporte to take his revenge.
This synopsis, however, makes it sound like there are clear delineations between good and evil. There are not. Everyone here, every character and every relationship, is revealed to be compromised to some degree; everyone is complicitous in some pitiful and fundamental violation of themselves. It’s even reflected in the film’s aesthetic: Bastards marks Denis’ first foray into digital, and while her compositions are typically enticing, its palette is dry and desaturated. Faces look ashen, nude bodies cadaverous. Even the night seems bleached-out, oddly depthless.
Denis has always been unafraid to step into the dark—think of the cockfighting immigrants from S’en fout la mort; or J’ai pas sommeil’s lonely, sorrowful serial murderer. But her tone is especially despairing, here. If 35 Rhums offered a tender and inclusive portrait of family life, and Vendredi soir hummed with romantic possibility, this film is their counterpoint and antithesis. It depicts a hellish, nocturnal realm, where human relationships are so deformed (by money, by privilege) that even the most basic connections are fractured. Indeed, with its emphasis on the confluence between sex and power, on the corruption of innocence and the malignancy of commerce, its set-up recalls nothing so much as a 1940s noir. (Even its central act of violation harkens back to William Faulkner’s proto-noir novel Sanctuary.) There’s no escape from this world . . . or, more correctly, there’s only one way out—and in this sense, too, it resembles a classic serie noir. How well one dies, and to what point, being the only metric that matters.
Except that Denis is hardly a conventional storyteller. Rather, she favours an elliptical, accumulative approach, a kind of narrative bricolage, the reason for which might be found as much in her methodology as her sensibility. She shoots quickly—usually in actual locations, and frequently improvising—but takes a long time to assemble the footage into a whole. She finds the film in the edit, and inevitably, things change—shift—in the process. The result is wayward and thrilling and frequently bewildering, and rarely conforms to the model, so beloved by studios and screenwriting 'experts’, of the tidy, three-act movie.
Consequently, we’re always a couple of paces behind the action, trying to fit these seemingly random pieces together—or even to work out even the basic relationships between characters. For the first half-hour, this is confounding. And then, gradually, the story clarifies, the pieces start to align, and the story emerges, like a photographic image emerging out of blankness.
It builds by slow stages to two astonishing sequences: a drunken night drive, scored to Tindersticks’ hypnotic electronica, that’s more unnerving than any car ride since Breillat’s A ma soeur—and an epilogue of stark, unrelenting horror: the squalid aftermath of sexual violence. At the very end, we wind up glimpsing something of the act in question, via the interpolation of some video footage—a decision which served to incense a number of viewers in Cannes. I was not one of them. To me it seemed not only appropriate but necessary, evidence of the film’s harsh but unyielding morality. Brutal this film may be, but it’s not nihilistic. At its core burns a white-hot glow of outrage.
That this masterly, mature and elegant work was excluded from Competition this year, while Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s idiotic A Chateau in Italy was not, is little short of infuriating. But Denis probably doesn’t care—and shouldn’t. She’s outside of fashion, and blithely unconcerned by celebrity. Operating on the fringes, working with the same, close circle of collaborators, she’s crafting a body of work destined to be watched and analysed for years, and spoken of alongside the likes of Godard and Bresson and Pialat. There’s no one whose films I look forward to as avidly, or find as rewarding. And if she makes you work, that effort feels more like a privilege than a burden. I was born too late, alas, to directly witness the heyday of the nouvelle vague, or the New German Cinema—but I’m very glad to be here for this.