Since when have we judged films with a mainstream eye – that most passive of viewing tools – expecting everything served on a plate, where narrative ingenuity becomes abstract opaqueness and intrigue cannot exist outside conventional genre plotting without coming across as a muddled mess? And why did the Cannes Film Festival hide behind this curse when snubbing Claire Denis’ compelling new mood piece, ‘Les Salauds’ (‘Bastards’), burying it in the Un Certain Regard sidebar rather than giving it a proper place in the main competition for what would have been – astonishingly – only her second picture to challenge for the Palme d’Or, the other being, ‘Chocolat’, twenty six years ago? And would it have stood more chance with a male filmmaker when Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s comedy drama, ‘Un Chateau en Italie’ has the distinction of being the sole film by a woman to receive a nomination during the last two years?
‘Les Salauds’ has Vincent Lindon reuniting with Denis for the first time since the outstanding romantic drama, ‘Vendredi Soir (‘Friday Night’). Denis has compared him to Jean Gabin but he reminds us more of Michel Piccoli and a certain Sixties French-lead masculinity – a moody sternness that shifts from the carnal to the surprisingly sensitive – an impression augmented by his character’s Nouvelle Vague style vintage car. And there are times when the film comes across as Denis’ contemporary take on Chabrol’s Sixties exploration of Hollywood’s post war psychological thriller. But it also brings to mind the more measured contemporaneous Left Bank modernism of Alain Resnais – a million miles from Chabrol – or Claude Sautet’s sometimes overlooked gem, ‘Les Choses de la Vie’ (‘The Things of Life’), which starred Piccoli as a dying man struggling to rationalise life’s multi-layered ambiguities in ways that have obvious parallels to Lindon’s character.
The film opens with driving rain that sets its drenched tone, with edgy neo-noir bleakness framing everything from a femme fatale, male anxiety and the classic noir ending done with a brutal Brechtain literalism/hyperreality where Denis sends-up her own film with more than a nod to Godard. It provides a light touch to an otherwise jet black deconstruction of institutional corruption within the family and business, which, with a classic Denis trope, is at its most acute when the two collide.
Lindon plays Marco, a rugged sea captain with revenge on his mind. His sister’s husband has committed suicide after seemingly allowing a loan shark in all but name, Edouard Laporte, to sexually torture Marco’s niece when repayments were tough. But nothing is quite as it first seems in this twilight world of half truths and secrets and things backfire catastrophically when he encounters Laporte’s mistress, Raphaelle, seductively played by Chiara Mastroianni.
This all becomes a pretext for Denis to take on that once bastion of male domination – even more than Cannes – European Modernism and subvert its language to explore masculinity in reality and as a social construct, one of her major themes obviously, but with a new inverted irony that brings the two facets closer together than ever before, almost crossing over into a post modern simulacrum but not quite. It’s intriguing and raises questions, which Denis can not fully answer here but, presumably, she will revisit in her coming films. Only a true auteur can do this and only a patient viewer will appreciate it. What a pity that the Cannes’ programmers weren’t prepared to board the train.
And if that was not temptation enough, it is worth watching for Agnès Godard’s mesmerising and playfully cinematography alone.