“Bastards” screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Free for museum members, $7 for all others. Not rated, 1:41, three stars out of four.
Directly before the title card for Claire Denis’ “Bastards,” we see a man (Vincent Lindon) in a taxicab, looking out the back window, the landscaped divided by the horizontal lines of the rear defroster.
Then we see the title card, and immediately afterward there’s a shot of a woman (Chiara Mastroianni) and her young son, only this time the view is divided by the vertical lines of a wrought-iron fence. The visual message is clear – these two families are in direct opposition to each other, and cannot co-exist.
From there, Denis builds a film noir that flirts with conventions of the genre before taking us in much more deeply than we thought we would go. “Bastards” is being marketed as the first bonafide thriller from the director of “White Material” and “Friday Night,” but in Denis’ fragmented, jagged film, the thrills soon give way to a mounting sense of dread.
The man in the taxi is Marco, a sea captain who has spent years on the ocean, estranged from his sister and her family. He is home on a mission of revenge; his brother-in-law has committed suicide, and his teenaged niece (Lola Creton) is in a state of drug-addled shock, found by police wandering the streets naked. In both cases, the culprit seems to be Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) a billionaire and the brother-in-law’s former business partner. He has had his way with the family, ruined them and discarded them.
Despite Marco’s antipathy towards his weak-willed sister, he can’t accept that, and rents an empty apartment in the same building as Laporte’s mistress Raphaelle (Mastroianni) and her young son (both seen at the opening of the film). Denis keeps us off-balance, jumping around in time, presenting isolated images that don’t make sense until later in the film (and sometimes never at all). Marco strikes up an affair with Raphaelle as a way of entering the family’s life, looking for answers, trying to draw a link between Laporte and his psychologically damaged niece, and between the niece and a sex ring located on a deserted farm outside Paris.
For stretches, you could see “Bastards” as a straight thriller, the granite-faced Lindon a Liam Neeson type smashing up Paris looking for justice. But Denis is deliberately withholding all of her cards, and what seems like a simple revenge thriller blackens into a disturbing tale of the intoxicating corruption of power, and the futility of an underclass trying to fight against it.