Total Ellipsis: Claire Denis on Bastards

French auteur Claire Denis talks us through her latest cinematic vision, the noir-tinged Bastards

At the coalface of cinematic endeavour, Claire Denis awaits with a Gallic shrug. She exists within her calm exterior as if cinema is an enigma that she solved at once upon the ending of her masterpiece Beau Travail; and that is very much founded in a wayward notion of simplicity, mystery and the sense of primordial other that prefigures the question of why…

The ease with which Denis alights from the circuit of film, festival, film ad nauseam is truly a joy to behold (kinda like her films). Bastards (or Les Salauds, to give it its French title) is her latest offering, her first since White Material in 2009, which comes to UK cinemas following its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes in May, where it was greeted by what can only be described as a bizarre critical reaction nearly as strange as the decision to place it in Un Certain Regard rather than in Competition.

Bastards puts Denis very much ahead of the vanguard of inbetweener cinema, where she places the focus on those moments that come in between the narrative that continues to be the primary focus of Anglo-Saxon cinema. Moments are what matter here, not such banalities as plot or story. There are no easy answers, only questions, which posits her very much within the Socratic tradition.

Perhaps a better indicator to what Bastards is lies within IMDB’s keywords for the film – suicide, hospital, rape, boat, family relationships, bankruptcy and murder – rather than any description of a ‘plot.’ Alongside those keywords, seeing the plot written down maybe gives us a perspective on Denis’ genius for her cinema of mystery. The film’s protagonist is Marco (Vincent Lindon), a commercial sea captain called back to land after his brother commits suicide, his niece is hospitalised and his sister-in-law blames successful businessman Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). A classic noiresque tale of revenge beckons then? Well maybe in some other universe: ‘Hollywood’ perhaps; not here though. Here we enter a world of questions and non-answers. We are alone in the woods and there is no Virgil to help us seek out the answers we demand.

The Skinny: Thematically a lot of your work focuses on relationships; whether that be familial or sexual. Would you say that this was your primary interest?

Claire Denis: A long time ago when I was presenting my second film at the Berlinale a friend of mine said, “I have only one topic: family.” I was looking at him and I said “Great, you know already that this is going to be your topic for your life, but for me: no, I don’t know.” A lot of bad journalism says I am only interested in Africa, colonialism and post-colonialism but this is bullshit like Valentine’s Day [when coincidentally Bastards is released in the UK, Claire explained she didn’t believe in Valentine’s Day so it was perfect for Bastards]. The truth is that in the end the family thing is not a topic but rather something that is there all the time, like a fire burning, it never stops even when a parent dies, if anything it crystallises more. It is not a subject, it is part of us and I wish I could have been lucid enough to understand that before, like Ozu. His genius was that he understood that this is what you need: a father and a family; and for me nothing is better.

Recently you said that the masculinity of the character Marco really interested you a lot. Why is that?

It is true that Vincent Lindon (with whom I did Vendredi Soir) is a special actor. There are not many actors like him in France. He is a solid guy; he is kinda like Jean Gabin from the 30s. There is something in him that you can trust even if he is a bad guy: his humanity. His fragility is not hidden by the muscle and that is very touching.

The character of Marco is one we don’t seem to see in cinema anymore. He kind of harks back to Robert Ryan or Robert Mitchum…

Well [Jean-Paul] Belmondo was like that in Godard’s early films. I think [I’ve seen this character] in some Anglo-Saxon films I have seen recently, like Take Shelter with Michael Shannon, who is a great actor and I think the fear he has for his family comes through in that film a lot. I love that film, and it is a film I would have loved to do, because it is not fake. He is a big guy, a strong guy but he is completely open and that is very moving.

You have talked earlier about being annoyed when critics mention the same thing about your work: Africa, colonialism, etc.

No, I’m not complaining but it means only one thing. The field of reflection for a lot of film critics is so reduced today that they don’t know what they say when they speak of neocolonialism. When I was shooting White Material, even my crew was discovering what it was to be in Africa. No one in the crew said, “Now we’re watching neocolonialism.” It’s far more complex. I think it is a pity that countries who in their history have dealt with those issues, like England who had an Empire and possessed other countries, don’t reflect because it’s interesting to do that. You can be in Cameroon and you drive 10km and you are in Nigeria and it’s like a different planet. Cameroon was ruled by France and Nigeria by England, so the traces are still there and it is interesting to understand but not to solve of course. I believe it is too simple to use those words because it is much more complicated.

Does it annoy you a little bit, the Anglo-Saxon obsession with easy explanation and the frustration with silence and fragmentary narrative rather than delving in and trying to take something for yourself?

I don’t think it’s an Anglo-Saxon thing. I think it comes from a demand for everything to be explained, which originates from the classical Hollywood narrative. But now if you look at some TV stuff that is famous, now you see that they have invented new narratives that creates a new maze for an audience who enjoys it. In cinema, because you have to pay for your seat you need popcorn and explanation. While we were editing White Material, I had a sequence in mind when Isabelle Huppert discovers the fire to be a flash-forward and so the film would end with her running, but there would have been a flash-forward before. It was not a desire to make a very intellectual sweep to the narrative but sometimes we see the disaster before it happens and it’s great.

Are your ellipses in the narrative in the script or do you work them out during the edit?

I think really it is interesting when it is in the script. Even if you don’t shoot chronologically you have the film in your head chronologically, so you don’t act or film like it’s a vision of destiny or pre-vision. I remember when Isabelle was coming back to the plantation and she was running wearing a lovely pink dress [in White Material] she knew I was filming a flash-forward and she did it slightly differently. She was afraid but not desperate. She was still hoping for something and I love that moment but it’s not easy to convince people to allow you to do this. I am not any more intelligent than any member of an audience, but I love to wander off the track while I’m watching a film.

Was shooting digitally a financial decision?

I hope to experiment on digital but for me it was great to say ‘let’s go’. It was not to do with the budget because we shot for eight weeks, so it was not too fast. It is so intriguing to use digital. It’s a real tool and it is not an under product of cinema. I was amazed while watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia of the textures he achieved, it was so beautiful; like a texture no one had ever seen.

Bastards is released in UK cinemas 14 Feb by Artificial Eye


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