No Sanctuary: Claire Denis on Bastards

Bastards_1By José Teodoro

The first image of Bastards, a gauzy curtain of nocturnal drizzle, falls on us like a heavy dream—or rather, it drags us under. The rain raineth on a whole lot of eerily beautiful gloom during the wordless, disorienting opening sequence: a solitary older man gazes out a window, seemingly resigned to some nameless despair; a young woman, naked but for a pair of heels, walks carefully along vacant Paris backstreets, as if in a trance. Who are these haunted people? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Nothing is contextualized, yet everything bespeaks some kind of dreadfully premonitory logic—a logic soon realized when we see a body lying in the street, discreetly covered by a white cloth, as police lead a solemn middle-aged woman away from the scene.

Tight close-ups and un-emphatic light; piles of unsold shoes and bloodied ears of corn; flashlights revealing a child’s bicycle deserted in tall grass. This is Claire Denis’ characteristically oneiric, elliptical take on the revenge drama, incorporating elements of Greek tragedy and the western, William Faulkner’s brutal, sordid 1931 novel Sanctuary, and Akira Kurosawa’s claustrophobic corporate thriller The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Written by Denis and her longtime collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, Bastards is that rare thing: a true modern noir, doomy and deterministic, though far from heartless. The film radiates deep affection for its hapless hero Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon), a divorced, middle-aged oil-tanker captain whose sturdy reliability (“[He’s] a guy you can lean on,” says Denis) ultimately proves not enough to withstand the terrible weight placed upon him. As Denis expressed it during our conversation, “Sometimes fate is falling on your back and crushing you.”

Though partaking somewhat of Denis’ habitual spatial and temporal shifts, the scenes that follow that oblique opening sequence provide shards of exposition that cohere gradually into a surprisingly straightforward narrative. Abandoning his naval career, selling his vintage Alfa Romeo, pawning his watch and cashing in his life insurance, Marco gives up his peripatetic existence to rent a spacious apartment in a tony Parisian neighbourhood which he doesn’t even bother to furnish, inhabiting it like a detective on a stakeout. His radical change in lifestyle is prompted by the hospitalization of his niece, Justine (Lola Créton)—the naked nightwalker of the first sequence—the apparent suicide of his brother-in-law—the opening’s solitary starer, then corpse—and the collapse of his family’s shoe manufacturing business, all of which has left his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) in emotional and financial chaos. Sandra holds one man responsible for all these tragedies: Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a wealthy, elderly industrialist to whom her husband was in debt, and whom Sandra accuses of both precipitating her husband’s suicide and sexually abusing her daughter.

Upon moving into his new digs, Marco purposefully begins to move in on Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), his downstairs neighbour—and, not at all coincidentally, Laporte’s much younger mistress. Gorgeous, extremely desirable, and devoted to her young son, Raphaëlle is perhaps pitiable as an apparent “kept woman”—though she insists to Marco that Laporte “gave me a confidence I never had”—but above all she is an asset Marco seeks to either appropriate or despoil in his reckless attempt at retribution. Fixing Raphaëlle’s son’s bike, wrapping packs of smokes in a dress shirt and tossing it down to her from his terrace as she returns empty-handed from a just-closed corner store, coolly and methodically working his way into her life, her thoughts, her pants, Marco is Bastards’ most proactive character, but—as gradual revelations regarding the Silvestris’ catastrophe will prove—he is also its most naïve.

The film’s title evokes fatherlessness, illegitimacy, rot. Indeed, every family in Bastards is broken by male maleficence. Marco himself is a flawed father, generally absent, frequently late for meetings with his daughter—a bastard by someone’s measure. Yet while the men of Bastards, whether sympathetic or nefarious, act in ways that are finally all too comprehensible, the film’s women—Justine, Sandra, Raphaëlle—remain enigmatic, their degree of complicity in the bad business buried in Bastards’ battered heart never made entirely clear. However, a sudden, desperate action performed by Raphaëlle in the film’s closing moments—reminiscent of a similar gesture carried out by plantation matriarch Maria (Isabelle Huppert) at the conclusion of Denis’ White Material (2009)—speaks volumes about where she stands when push comes to shove. While Raphaëlle’s final gesture, like Maria’s, might be read as too much of a reverse deus ex machina for some, the more I reflect on it, the more it rings true. It might seem facile to defer to the Chester Himes quote Denis uses as the opening epigram for No Fear, No Die (1989)—“All men, whatever their race, colour or origins, are capable of anything and everything”—but such an assertion underlies Denis’ entire oeuvre. Murder, exploitation, cannibalism, tenderness, forgiveness: her characters, bastards or no, really are capable of anything.

Bastards opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 11, beginning TIFF Cinematheque’s full Denis retrospective. Denis will be present for a Q&A at the October 18 evening screening of the film, and also appears on October 17 with Mati Diop to present her Carte Blanche selection of Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973), followed by Diop’s Mille soleils (2013). The following conversation took place in September, when Bastards had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Cinema Scope: Do you still like to travel? I can only imagine how much of the last 25 years you’ve spent in airports, in taxicabs, in hotel lobbies, at film festivals.

Claire Denis: Of course I like to travel. But a film festival is not travelling. It’s very strange: a bed in a hotel room, breakfast, plane. You see nothing. Except when I was in India this summer for a retrospective—I spent almost a month there. Still, that was not travelling, because everything was organized. No, travelling is something I did when I was a child with my family. I was very used to it. Packing and unpacking. Location scouting I like. But festivals are a fake way of travelling.

Scope: Does travel inspire your work?

Denis: Travel is not inspiring. What is inspiring are moments of laziness. Daydreaming. Book-reading. Walking. Listening to music. Going to a concert. Travelling is a job. You can’t be daydreaming while travelling. Even on the plane I can’t daydream. I can read, I can drink too much champagne, I can sleep. But you have only nightmares on planes, because you’re trapped. The best time for imagination is when I have nothing to do, or when I decide not to do anything. To be loose.

Scope: It’s difficult to talk about where work comes from, to trace the origins of the first spark. Bastards has a strong, coherent narrative through-line and well-developed characters. And yet, after seeing Bastards—after seeing any of your films—the thing I walk away with above all is a sense of being transported. Of patterns, impressions, layers of things, the cadences of memories. As time passes I can completely forget the stories in your films, but those other elements remain very clear.

Denis: That’s my way. What I mean is that scriptwriting is one thing, but before that there must have been a sort of transportation to, not a story, but a mood, where I can see people, free or trapped, but in a space, in a mood. It’s not a spark, but rather a moody time. It’s very full of anxiety because I always dream that I will be lucky enough to have a story, fully shaped, come down on me, like the table of the law sent by God. In French we use “transport” to talk of transportation, like in English, but we also use the term to talk of falling on love: transport amoureux. It’s this movement that brings you beyond your will.

Scope: I’m going to appropriate that. Sometimes “falling in love” feels too doomed.

Denis: Ooh, yes, falling in love. [Makes the sound of something crashing] Of course, to be doomed is also part of some mood.

Scope: Perhaps as you get older, as you become more familiar with doom, falling in love feels more like a choice you can make. You’re not as deprived of your will. Sometimes you can see where things are going, how they’re going to go very badly, and choose to decline. Which is similar to making a film, no? An idea or a mood captivates you, sweeps you away, but it could be a dead end.

Denis: Mm. It’s true.

Scope: There were four years between White Material and Bastards. Was it difficult to conceive of or decide on Bastards as your next project?

Denis: Yes. But I want to say something first. You speak about transport amoureux, of falling in love. A few weeks ago I was in Berlin for a Stuart Staples and Tindersticks concert. The concert was in a gallery that held a painting of his wife. He dedicated a lot of songs to her. They met a long time ago. They have children. The music was conveying transport amoureux. It’s not a fall. After years of being together, raising children, not every day is an easy day. But suddenly during this concert I felt myself transported to love. That’s the same with film, you know? You decide on something hoping that it will transport you.

So, Bastards. My life was sad, in a way. My father died, which I expected. He died after five and a half years. He had a very long dying. But suddenly he was dead, and I myself had some little troubles. It’s easy to believe in fate sometimes. Sometimes fate is falling on your back and crushing you. I decided maybe it could be great to go back to Faulkner and fate. And film noir. The future as something you are trapped in. I was transported to a guy, Marco, that had everything: strength, charm, family, education, a good job. Everything is his future looks good. Suddenly, because he believed in his destiny, he comes back to help his sister and he’s trapped. He becomes the victim.


Scope: Doubling back once more to this idea of falling in love, I felt that the storyteller of Bastards is in love with Marco. The storyteller has a love for everything he represents.

Denis: Absolutely. I think I more or less fell in love with most of the characters. It’s hard to maintain a partnership otherwise. You can’t cheat on them. It has to be like that, you know? I know that Marco’s sister and Chiara’s character, Raphaëlle, are hard to love, in a way. Yet I had to be on their side. In the case of Marco, yes, it was very important to me that he was loved until the end. I wanted to be with him all the time.

Scope: The world of Bastards is cruel, but the film doesn’t feel like it’s being cruel to its characters.

Denis: It’s like Denis Levant in Beau travail (1999). When he kills himself at the end, I thought I was going to die.

Scope: The noir elements are rich and deep in Bastards. Lindon’s Marco feels like a Robert Ryan character. But Bastards also plays as a western—so Marco could also be a Ryan character in a western. What I mean is that Marco is an anachronism: he represents an ideal from the past. He’s a man’s man.

Denis: You’re right, but those men still exist, eh? I’ve been on those boats. I’ve been on oil tankers. Those guys have a great life. They have a lot of freedom. They go home three times a year. They make a decent living.

Scope: My father, who’s from Spain, joined the navy at 14, then worked for the German merchant marines. He was married and had a family very, very young, but one day at sea something snapped and he completely changed his life, abandoned everything and started anew in a different country. I’m certain he would never have been able to do that were he not working at sea.

Denis: When I was in Tahiti I remember meeting so many French men from the navy who, like your father, quit everything to start a second life with a Haitian woman. I realized they were not even sad, because they’d seen so little of their families in France. They send them money. Of course they love them, but they were not ever completely a part of their life.


Scope: Tell me about Raphaëlle, about Mastroianni. She’s very fascinating to me for different reasons.

Denis: She’s fascinating to me too!

Scope: As an actress, you mean.

Denis: And as a woman. It’s not easy to be a normal woman when you’re the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve. It’s a hard job, because everyone is always reminding her of this. Catherine Deneuve is the iconic figure of the French woman, and Marcello Mastroianni is an iconic figure of the Mediterranean man. In a way, Chiara’s life is great. She’s received so much. And yet she had to fight to be someone.

Scope: I wonder if we see that fight onscreen in Bastards. “Cagey” is the wrong word; what’s compelling about Raphaëlle to me is that she’s constantly conflicted and contained. It’s only at the very end that, in a flash, she becomes decisive and violent. It seems, in retrospect, like she was hedging her bets. In the end she’s very mercenary, but leading up to this I really felt for her.

Denis: Me too. She accepted to be that beautiful woman with that old guy in a very feminine way. Some people say she’s too passive. But hey, come on! What leads a woman to become trapped in that life? Probably the child, you know? I hate it when perceived passivity in female characters is deemed anti-feminist. I think most women, especially in the past, learn very young that a certain veneer of passivity is a great way to conceal things. To hide, to accept, to not show too much hope in the future. To resign a little bit, without complaining. Passivity in a case like hers is brave, to me.

Scope: Is her character drawn from Sanctuary?

Denis: No. It’s more the doom that’s taken from Sanctuary. That and the fact that the young girl is used as a sexual object. There is something very strange in that character of the young girl. At the end of Sanctuary the father takes her to Paris, as if taking a young girl to Paris will dissolve the scars of what she’s been through, the rape and everything. They are in a garden, in the middle of Paris, and the way Faulkner puts it you understand that the father doesn’t dare to speak a word to her, but the hope is that maybe she’ll feel better. And her way to tell him that he cannot give her this relief, because now she is completely alone, is she takes a little powder box and she powders her nose. And that’s it.

Scope: Something that always interested me about your process is the way that you seem to begin with a set of ideas and then, at some point, with certain films, you might turn to literature for help with story. But based on what you’re telling me now I gather that you’re not even looking for story. You’re looking for gesture. You’re looking for something else in the literature to help you.

Denis: A mood, I would say. There is something in Faulkner that is so human. He had a way to write that makes you feel everything carnally. He brings you into the world of his characters physically and emotionally. It’s very damaging, I guess. I started reading him when I was very young, and for the worst reason. A famous writer of roman noir copied Sanctuary to make his own novel. James Hadley Chase. The novel was No Orchids for Miss Blandish. I was not allowed to read crime novels, but I read it anyway, and it had this rape in it. Shocking. And it led me to Faulkner. I’m not sure I understood everything in Faulkner, but the sense of losing control of your own life was something I immediately understood. As I Lay Dying I read in the college, and, oh, my god. You can feel the nails of the coffin inside your flesh, you know? I guess he’s a very special writer.

Scope: There’s something about the structural device, the narrative disorientation of The Wild Palms that also reminds me of your work.

Denis: Yeah. I think both of Wild Palms’ stories together create, whew, I don’t know, a failure. Both stories. You understand the failure, because they don’t believe, really. The couple falls in love, but the guiltiness is there. The same happens with the prisoner. He feels guilty to have escaped from jail. It’s so rich and brilliant. I think Faulkner is like a painter and a musician and a writer altogether.

Scope: Sometimes people have this idea that in order for a film to be truly cinematic it has to somehow employ effects that are pure to that form. I love that your work is able to draw so much of its cinematic power from music, and also from literature. Literature is, to some thinkers, anathema to cinema.

Denis: This is a joke. Literature is still a model. Literature invented flashbacks and flashforwards. Homer is the master of fiction filmmaking. I really think literature is still the pinnacle of modernity. People refuse to acknowledge this, maybe because they are afraid of the word “intellectual.” But literature and intellectualism have nothing to do with each other.

Scope: Tell me about your collaboration with Jean-Pol Fargeau. Do you discuss and then one of you writes? Are you both doing the actual writing? Do you pass material back and forth?

Denis: We have to be together, in the same room. In the kitchen. We write together, all the time.

Scope: Did you discuss, in this case, what you might want to draw from Faulkner or The Bad Sleep Well?

Denis: It’s not necessary immediately. I describe the mood and how it came to me. I don’t hide anything, but you cannot throw everything you have in mind at the head of someone you’re working with. It’s better to have lunch. Drink coffee. Smoke a cigarette. Walk. Listen to music.

Scope: The plot of Bastards seems airtight, but when you watch the film for the first time the opposite seems true. For a while it gives the illusion of being loose, wayward. It can take a long time to comprehend how the plot is working, yet by the end the film feels very grounded in plot. Does this effect of atmosphere and elision obscuring plot develop in the script or in the editing room?

Denis: In the script. We made the decision that the story will be revealed to the audience as it is revealed to Marco. We know nothing that he doesn’t know.

Scope: The visual refrain of Lola Créton walking naked in the streets could be an image Marco forms in his mind, perhaps an invention, the image he constructs in his mind when he tries to fathom what happened to her.

Denis: It was the leitmotif of the film. Maybe it’s my own image of that girl who comes from Faulkner. She’s young. She’s beautiful. She’s terribly wounded. And yet she seems solid. She’s walking with her head high. In those moments, she’s not a victim. She’s something else. Maybe she’s transporting us somewhere.