The insidious web of money, sex and power — a vintage film noir premise — entangles all of the characters in “Bastards,” a hypnotic nocturnal thriller from Claire Denis. Taking its loose inspiration from Kurosawa (the corporate revenge drama “The Bad Sleep Well”) and a startling act of sexual violence from Faulkner’s “Sanctuary,” this powerfully acted, unsettling roundelay of damaged lives is sure to offend gentler tastes (as it did in its divisive Cannes premiere), even if Denis has made that increasingly rare film in which the graphic acts depicted seem more necessary than superfluous. Fests and arthouse distribs that have long supported the maverick helmer should prove ready takers for this provocative item, which opens Aug. 7 in France.
In a scenario that also echoes Claude Sautet’s 1976 “Mado,” the pic opens with the suicide of debt-addled shoe manufacturer Jacques (Laurent Grevill), who was up to his eyeballs in debt to billionaire tycoon Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). In a montage set, like much of the film, to the moody, Tangerine Dream-esque electronica score of longtime Denis collaborators Tindersticks, “Bastards” cuts among the crime scene; a police interview with Jacques’ widow Sandra (Julie Bataille); and a nude woman — later revealed to be Jacques and Sandra’s teenage daughter, Justine (Lola Creton) — wandering dazed and bloody through the Paris streets.
Denis then flashes forward one month to the arrival of Sandra’s brother, Marco (Vincent Lindon), an oil-tanker captain who’s taken an extended leave to help his sister settle Jacques’ affairs — and also to reckon with Laporte. Renting a downstairs flat in the same building where Laporte boards his (much) younger mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), Marco begins a calculated seduction of the kept woman. Meanwhile, Justine lies in a clinic recovering from her attack — one that has left her with permanent damage to both body and mind.
Working with regular co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis follows the destinies of these five characters as they converge toward an amoral void. Marco’s investigation leads to a series of disturbing revelations about the exact nature of Jacques and Laporte’s shared business interests (including just what exactly was going on at a rural barn littered with corncobs and pubic hair), while no one — not even distraught Sandra — is without complicity.
The action plays out in a fashion that is less elliptical than such recent Denis efforts as “The Intruder” and “White Material,” but no less fragmentary and associative in its design. Adopting a terse narrative style that seems to mirror the brutality of the film’s subject, “Bastards” strips every scene down to its essential details, never giving the viewer more information than Marco has at any given point in the story, only finally fitting all of its puzzle pieces together in a shocking final scene. But even at its most opaque, “Bastards” always exerts a dreamlike pull rooted in Denis’ rhythmic layerings of image, sound and music.
Reteaming with Denis for the first time since “Friday Night” in 2002, Lindon has aged beautifully into the kind of weary but reliable man of action that Jimmy Stewart played in the Anthony Mann westerns (or Robert Ryan in just about anything). He’s surrounded here by lots of members of Denis’ stock company, including Alex Descas (as a kindly doctor) and Gregoire Colin (a long way from the baby-faced baker of “Nenette and Boni”), plus Mastroianni (in her first Denis film), who has never seemed quite this physically and emotionally naked onscreen before. Her scenes with Lindon are among the movie’s most tantalizingly ambiguous — perhaps just two people using each other, perhaps something like love.
Shooting for the first time in digital (with regular d.p. Agnes Godard), Denis embraces the technology for all its non-filmic qualities, creating a look that recalls the HD films of Michael Mann (especially “Miami Vice”) in its low-light interiors and gray, fluorescent-washed night.