Les Salauds (Bastards) - dir. Claire Denis (2013)
One man's rigorouse sparseness is another's willful obscurity, so whether you find Denis’ penchant for withholding information revelatory or confusing will depend on your tolerance for the crepuscular. Les Salauds feels like the memory of a dream episode, and any attempt to recapitulate it must do it violence. Narrative abstraction makes Denis a great artist, but ineffective as a story-teller. She is too intent on hiding information to generate sequentially ordered plot-points accessible to ordinary mortals. As intriguing as her expectedly enigmatic foray into the crime genre is, her entropic approach threatens to eclipse the drama emplotted. Putting her signature cryptic style on the proceedings like a strangle-hold yields the envisioned obscurity while frustrating our (boring) need for a minimum of disclosive clarity. Her diegetic parsimony may signal a lack of confidence in her ability to involve viewers without hypnotizing them into complete, uncomprehending submission. Having been confounded by Les Salauds' singular opacity, it remains an open question whether her eschewal of ready understanding is a mater of artistic principle (a reflection of the mysteriousness of existence) or simply an indication of incompetence.
I intend to revisit Denis' film, less to figure out the plot (which would go against her intention) than to immerse myself in its darkly claustrophobic pulse knowing what not to expect. Technically no one should essay a review after a single viewing. The point of view of trying to understand a story has the validity of all exploratory efforts, but it is nonetheless biased precisely by the need to piece together the evidence--the 'indications of reality.' The end of criticism may be to distill one's considered bias toward a film, but reviewing out of frustration inevitably puts one's interest in seeing a mystery resolved before the merits of the film as a totality. Such an approach instrumentalizes the work as a means to the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, whether or not it wants to be solved.
Sage advise for any reviewer of a Denis film would be to disregard their interest in plot altogether. But the default orientation of first-time viewing probably cannot transcend such interest, which is, after all, just the interest in seeing what happens; following the unfoldings against a horizon of anticipated full disclosure with all its moral implications. Denis does not provide mystery resolving cadential closings. The whole point of the oneiric-perceptual aesthetic is to disallow claritive closure. The problem with that is that if one can't figure the plot out, there's nothing to resolve, just "one damn thing after another." What you get is cinema not as moral-instructive institution but as accessory to a crime. We're only expected to watch, stupefied, and to relish our stupefaction.
As a contemporary practitioner of the perceptual revolution introduced by Antonioni (a focus on events rather than plot points), Denis carries on in that modernist tradition. It is self-defeating to disregard the rules of that convention, which obstructs judgment by foregrounding the witness function. Feeling mostly defeated is how people are meant to emerge from Les Salauds!
Like many of the verité generation, Denis elides all clarifying distance between spectator and scenario. She unfolds the narrative from a first-person orientation whose privilege is one with its restrictiveness, dropping hints, but no more. If you don’t get the import of a scene, you probably don’t deserve to. Subtle-sublime elusiveness marks the mysteries only people of veritable psychic ability are able to discern. The rest can go watch Hitchcock.
Denis' will to immersive confusion negates over-sight and contextualization. It is achieved by framing and ellipsis. Right from the start we are sitting complicitly on the shoulders of characters we've never been properly introduced to. Tight close-ups annul our attempts to situate events in a recognizable social context. The lack of establishing shots, an example of spatial ellipsis, is another way of hiding information to impede comprehension and rob us of super-ordinated insight. We are supposed to be dreaming, not gaining insight. Given that, my criticism of her want of expository panache may lack a target.
No need for a spoilers alert here! Denis' film will not enable a perspective that subsumes the subject-matter it emplots. It negates thought in favor of sensation. To spell out Denis’ transcendental-oneiric mysteries would be vulgar. Luckily, there is just enough of what isn't nothing to entice and entrap us. Just don't expect to be released from the snare.
A big spot of incandescence is Vincent Landon, one of France’s preeminent contemporary male actors who somehow managed to become famous without looking like a zombie (Mathieu Amalric), a bedraggled scarecrow (Daniel Autueil), or a portly modern-day de Bergerac with bad skin (Depardieu). He may not be the picture of youth, but one can believe him as a tough-guy precisely because one senses the heart of a dreamer. And those eyes! If God had them they would be like Lindon’s—dopey-wise, compassionate, and infinitely triste. Eyes that convey everything one can ask of eyes, in striking contrasting to his slip of a mouth—taciturn-bitter, suppressing unspoken passions. Not least of all, one can watch him in a sex scene without shocked incredulity or the involuntary triggering of one’s gag-reflex. He freezes-up to project blankness, activates tender solicitude, and combusts explosive rage with palpable conviction.