Even the most devoted fans of Claire Denis are likely to be disturbed by some of the deviant subject matter in her newest film, Bastards. The story of a ship captain named Marco (Vincent Lindon) seeking revenge on behalf of his bereaved and bankrupt sister, whose husband recently committed suicide and whose daughter has been the victim of sexual abuse, Bastards marks a significant departure from the thematic territory of Denis' prior two films, the touchingly poetic family drama 35 Shots of Rum and the forceful African civil war film White Material. With 11 features to her credit, Denis' tackling of such divisive material this late in her career is a testament to her fearlessness as a director.
While her last three films all feature an eclectic mix of characters whose backstories intersect in complicated ways, Denis summed up the essence of each film in just a few words during an interview earlier this month. "35 Shots of Rum is so borne out of love," she said. "White Material is about courage and craziness. [Bastards] is anger." Many characters in Denis' films are likewise people of few words. In Bastards, Marco's niece Justine (Lola Creton) barely utters a single sentence of dialogue throughout the film. Instead, she communicates the horrific circumstances of her sexual trauma through facial expressions and, in one particularly haunting scene, by wandering through the streets of Paris at night completely naked.
The first time we see Justine in this state, we have no idea what circumstances have led to such a bizarre behavior. While Denis has been accused of unraveling complicated stories that can be difficult to follow, she insists that she does not make calculated decisions to withhold certain information from the audience. "I don't want to be mysterious," she says. "I am not a chemist. I'm giving all I can... I have absolutely no problem with Lola speaking so little. I don't need a girl like Lola to tell me what she feels. I know what she feels."
Actions certainly speak louder than words in Bastards. When Marco is shown the blood-strewn sex den where Lola was victimized, he channels his outrage by a pummeling its proprietor without saying a word. Similarly, in one of the film's few uplifting scenes, Marco silently writes his sister a large check to help her settle her dead husband's debts.
In a way, Bastards combines the bloodiness of White Material with the family issues explored in 35 Shots of Rum, creating an altogether more potent movie. Denis, however, does not see her films as blended versions of previously explored territory. "For me, it's not like making a decision to use a little bit of this violence and a little bit of that family dysfunction," she says. "I think I am unable to describe the links that exist between films, but I have a feeling that they are a community. I can see that. I can feel that."
This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.