Inexplicably relegated to second-tier status at Cannes, Claire Denis’s revenge thriller is her most viscerally unsettling movie in more than a decade—and paradoxically, her most accessible. (It’s also her first shot on video—viva her longtime collaborator Agnès Godard!) The French filmmaker wrong-foots the audience several times in the first few minutes, cutting from a wealthy man’s preparation for suicide to a dazed woman (Lola Créton) walking cobblestoned streets in nothing but high heels, and then to a bereft mother. Our focus finally settles on Marco (Vincent Lindon), a gruff, hypermasculine ship’s captain who comes home from seafaring duties to investigate his niece’s sexual assault.
Denis deliberately scrambles chronology and causality; it takes a while, for example, to understand why Marco is so interested in his downstairs neighbor (Chiara Mastroianni). But Marco’s singularity of purpose cuts a straight line through the movie’s curves. Like many of Denis’s protagonists, he’s as much beast as man, but here his desire for vengeance or justice—or a little of both—is less dangerous than the steely perversions of the people he’s looking for. As befits the title, there are no good guys, just the varying progression of rotting souls. But if Bastards is cold, it’s never clinical; rather, it’s a fully engaged, deeply moral movie about people who are neither.
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