Bastards: sans optimisme ou chaleur

On Claire Denis' latest feature, still in selected UK cinemas...

Those seeking romantic chimes this Valentine’s Day might be best advised to stay away from Bastards, the latest feature film from Cameroon-born French director Claire Denis. While this Paris-set thriller has a pseudo-erotic charge, its bleak rendering of present-day France pretty much denies any hint of optimism or warmth.

The film’s February 14 release does carry some coincidental topicality, though. The recent allegations made about François Hollande’s private affairs—and his partner Valérie Trierweiler’s claims that the burdens of leadership were to blame for the collapse of their relationship—imply many things about political power today, not least the extent to which its daily demands can render any normal relationship untenable.

Bastards seems very much to be responding to such currents. Marco (Vincent Landon), a sailor, returns to Paris after his brother’s suicide, which he believes to be the result of shady dealings with elusive business tycoon Eduoard Laporte (Michel Subor). Attracted to Laporte’s younger wife Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), Marco embarks upon an affair with her, only to realise that he’s on the wrong end of an unequal distribution of wealth—one that allows one social layer to extort and embezzle at the expense of another.

Like Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir Chinatown (1974), Denis’ latest film cuts deeper than mere political crookedness and turns, with a rather unpleasant twist, into a story about incest, prostitution and unutterable horror. Here, monetary corruption pervades and destroys that sacred avatar for capitalism itself: the nuclear family. As chief villain Laporte, Subor is the embodiment of a failed economic system, brazenly marching onward with an arrogant confidence in his own right to wealth, power and his female partner’s body—which he no doubt regards as another piece of property.

Indeed, there’s something eerily similar in Subor’s look here to that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man whose wealth and power have ensured safe navigation through multiple rape allegations. In Bastards, France is a top-to-bottom nightmare of all-consuming corruption. But its deeper, more troubling implication is not that big business is the bad guy, but that its position is enabled by more systemic evils. And just when you think you’ve dealt the beast a deathblow, the extent to which it has corrupted the innocent into aiding and abetting it is revealed. The lasting feeling here is one of absolute despair.

Originally written 6 February 2014.