Review: ‘Bastards’ 11.7.14

I deliberately chose to revisit this film for 2 important reasons. One, because it currently holds a spot on my top 10 films of 2014, and two, because I never got around to writing a review for it. Paris born writer/director Claire Denis has just about as diverse of a résumé as almost any other international filmmaker that I can think of. She first caught the eye of the filmmaking landscape with her debut breakthrough film – 1988’s “Chocolat”. She made quite a few films throughout the nineties, all of which admittedly I haven’t seen. But starting with around the turn of the century is about when I caught on and got interested in her work. Her incredibly controversial body-horror picture “Trouble Every Day” (2001) was my real first introduction to her. A film that stands out as one of the pioneering films of the French New Extremity movement. That film resonated with me so much to the point that I still think about it often when talking about my conversations on film. Then
my next taste of Denis was with 2008’s “35 Shots of Rum”. A rich, poignant family drama about a bi-racial daughter and her recently widowed father. Then only to be swept up once again the following year with 2009’s “White Material”. A film about a young woman trying to stay alive in a war-torn post-colonial Africa. One thing that stands out at least to me in relation to Denis’ work is not only her ability to make such a diversity of different films within her body of work, but ones that are always risk taking and seem to challenge her audience. Having really liked the 4 previous films I had seen of hers, mixed in with the fact that it received a Un Certain Regard nomination at last year’s Cannes Film Festival I knew this was one I wasn’t going to miss.

The film starts right off the bat with a suicide. The man’s wife is questioned and believes she knows why her husband went to such lengths. We flash forward a year, and the story introduces us to Marco (the great French actor Vincent Lindon) who moves into the apartment building of his now widowed sister and dead brother-in-law. Marco also takes an interest in one of the other building residents. A rich heiress whose husband was the business partner of his late brother-in-law. A man who Marco feels is responsible for his death and the suffering and financial debt he put his sister in. Though Marco seems to have quite a fascination with the man’s wife, and the two soon develop an affair. Meanwhile his grieving sister’s daughter goes missing and is found brutalized after an accident in the hospital. Marco’s focus then shifts to finding out who could have possibly done such a thing to his niece while still continuing his affair with the man’s wife who he think’s is responsible for his dead brother-in-law. Did her husband really have something to do with it? Why did his niece get into the accident and wind up in the hospital? Are the two interconnected in some way? This is what the film goes on to explore in its second half.

What can I say other than I absolutely loved this movie. And consider it to be Denis’ best film to date. Given that Denis is now in her late sixties and even though probably has a few films left in her, it almost felt like a culmination piece in relation to the rest of her body of work that I’ve seen. It’s a noirish and nightmarish vision that’s shrouded in mystery. Like some of her more controversial pieces (ala “Trouble Every Day”) it’s a grand statement on the dark side of humanity and the depths to which people out there can go. Except it’s not intentionally nihilistic like the films of her other French counterpart Gasper Noe. Denis is much more of a psychological director whose movies contain quite a bit of mystery. It’s reminiscent of films like George C. Scott’s “Hardcore” (1978), David Lynch’s trilogy of films about mistaken identity – “Lost Highway” (1997), 2001’s “Mulholland Drive, and “Inland Empire” (2007), alas mixed in with a taste of Joel Schumacher’s “8MM” (1999). It’s incredibly dark, erotic, and perverse much like those films were. Also, like most of Denis’ work she seems more interested in really challenging the audience to think more than anything. Which who anybody that knows me knows how much I value that aspect in terms of how I view film. Lastly, is the film’s last act which contains some unabashedly truths about the innately evil and unspeakable horrors of the dark side of humanity. Totally taking me by storm and one which had me sitting there not knowing exactly what to do with myself once the credits rolled. This is an unforgettable film, but only for people who like their films to be both dark and challenging. If this sounds like your cup of tea, well, then there’s really not a better foreign film I can recommend to you that I’ve seen all year. This is one that currently stands high on my list of the top 10 films of 2014. One in which I’m pretty confident in saying that I think should hold out and remain there by year’s end.

[A-]

Review: ‘Borgman’ 9.12.14

Alex Van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is an unbelievably unique and undeniable singular vision. One that follows on the heals of films by celebrated international directors like Pascual Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009’s exceptional “Dogtooth”, Michael Haneke’s 2009’s “The White Ribbon”, Ben Wheatley’s 2011’s “Kill List”, and Claire Denis’ 2013’s “Bastards”. I bring up these directors and their respective films I chose because all of them in some shape or form, be it in their social allegories (“Dogtooth”, “The White Ribbon, “Martyrs”), or their penchant for the macabre (“Kill List”, “Bastards”), were just a handful of the films that acted as reference points throughout. Especially “Dogtooth”. What interested me so much about this movie first was that I was hearing that it drew comparisons to the aforementioned films. But also that it was the first Dutch movie in 36 years that the panel at Cannes felt like belonged on their small slate of 18 films. I sometimes have to stress to people how unbelievable of a feat it is to get your movie selected and shown at Cannes. You’re talking about thousands of movies that are submitted every year from international film makers from all over the world to the world’s most prestigious film festival. That and only 18 make the cut. So pretty much of a film is selected at Cannes, chances are 9 times out of 10 that I will make a mental note of and see it when it’s released later in the year.

If you showed this movie to a 100 people everybody would give you a different explanation of what it was about. It’s very interpretive and most of the time you’re left wondering “wait a minute what the” or “what did I just see and what did it mean”? The story starts with a priest and 2 hillbilly types, getting ready for some kind of attack. They storm the woods and come across a network of people that live under the ground (yep), who escape their demise, and the leader, Anton, finds himself coming out of the woods and wandering into one of those rich, suburban, upper class communities. He goes door to door asking if he can take a bath or shower (uh-huh) and people are adamant about not letting him into their home, not only because it’s such a strange request, but because he looks like some kind of vagrant pedophile. He finally manages to be let into one woman’s home, because her husband gives him a beating, and she winds up feeling sorry for the guy. Here’s where things start to really get interesting (if they hadn’t been enough already). He infiltrates their home, and his focus seems to be to “move up the chain” and “sit at the big table”. Since his wife is hiding him from her husband this isn’t necessarily realistic. So he winds up camping out in their back shed. Soon after he starts to get comfortable, he begins calling what appears to be a sort of network of people, all who seem to be in it for some greater cause. To me I interpreted this “cause” to be wrecking havoc on the upper class. But that makes it sound too simple. By a series of events, they manage to take over the home, not literally, but in that the main character, Anton, shaves and goes under the guise of a gardener to secure a job and spot within the family’s home. Now him and his cronies, or what could be better referred to as “the network”, can really take over. That’s more or less the setup. Then really strange things start to happen involving hypnotizing the children in the home, killing people and putting their heads down in planting pots filled with concrete and sinking them in the water, serving up some kind of mysterious poisonous liquid to unsuspecting guests, along with tearing up the families entire property with bulldozers for reasons not entirely clear (like I said nothing is spelled out for you in this film). Along with various other antics and shenanigans. This is bizarre, absurdest, and extremely strange stuff indeed.

But within it’s absurdity also lies its brilliance. From the second the beginning credits started to role to the second they rolled up the screen following. I was totally hooked and immersed in the story. The brain light switch went on and didn’t go off for the duration of the entire film. What were these people’s motives? Who were they supposed to represent (they live underground, need to be invited into the homes, etc). The devil’s spawn perhaps? Some kind of group/cult/organization with supernatural tendencies? Clones? What on earth is going on here is what I was constantly asking myself throughout the film. But within that ambiguity of not really knowing what was going on I found myself more and more fascinated by it. It’s nicely shot and has some almost mystical, dreamlike sequences that were pretty effective. It’s also a great social allegory on classicism, racism and discrimination. And how protective people of the upper class really are of their privacy, and how they react once it’s been invaded. This was a very hard movie to review because there really were so many aspects one could refer to when talking about it. Which I thought was its greatest strength; its ability to engage the audience while still remaining faithful to the unbelievably strange and challenging source material. This I would definitely recommend but only to a certain demographic. If you are like me and are a fan of incredibly bizarre, experimental, absurdest, psychological  material. Well then this one might be for you. For everybody else, you might have a difficult and frustrating time of trying to get into such a weird and obtuse film.

Grade: strong B (*but strictly for a very specific type of audience)