For a month now, the Gene Siskel Film Center has been showcasing the elegant riddles of filmmaker Claire Denis. This week brings a run of her latest, which is atypically pulpy for this filmmaker, yet very much of a piece with many of her earlier, watchful portraits of bodies and hearts at rest and in motion.
The film is "Bastards," and the bluntness of the title correctly suggests a different sort of film than Denis' recent "35 Shots of Rum" and "White Material." A plot description, on the other hand, makes "Bastards" sound like a different sort of film than the one Denis has made.
A supertanker captain (Vincent Lindon) receives a distress call from his sister (Julie Bataille). The sister's husband has committed suicide. The family shoe factory — cheap knockoffs, "low-quality and tacky," as the captain notes — is about to go under. The captain's niece (Lola Creton) is first seen staggering through the nocturnal streets of Paris, nude except for high heels, bleeding. She has been assaulted.
"Bastards" follows the captain as he moves into a huge apartment, embarking on a steely affair with the neighboring wife (Chiara Mastroianni) of a wealthy businessman (Michel Subor) who lives in a world of shady motives and desires. Taking a page out of William Faulkner's "Sanctuary," the story written by Denis and co-author Jean-Pol Fargeau spreads out, slowly, to encompass the goings-on at a sex club located in a remote farmhouse. Denis' film is about users and the used. The sex scenes with Lindon and Mastroianni are frank, meticulously composed and the heart of the picture. Denis, shooting for the first time on digital, works as usual with cinematographer Agnes Godard, and their images remain as supple as ever.
The film deploys familiar noir tropes, but Denis uses them as building blocks for a different, languid sort of nightmare. "Bastards" feels more like an exercise, a dour stunt, than Denis' best work. And yet the faces of Lindon and Mastroianni stay with you, hungry one minute, desolated the next. These two are disgusted, increasingly, by the families with which they're stuck. True to genre form, the secrets turn out to be pretty awful. The film is a paradox: a beautiful series of images about a terrible series of crimes, unpunished and poisonous.
No MPAA rating (nudity, violence, language)
Running time: 1:37; in French with English subtitles.
Plays: Friday-Wednesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center