A double bill running from Friday to Tuesday (November 22 to 26) at the Vancity Theatre yokes together two very different films dealing with the consequences of child abuse. Claire Denis’s newest film, Bastards, is a blacker-than-black noir, inspired by William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. When it begins, a Parisian shoe manufacturer has killed himself, and his daughter is staggering through the streets of Paris, bleeding from her privates and wearing only high heels. Both have been victimized by a powerful, corrupt businessman, into whose circle they have fallen. The plot revolves around the girl’s uncle, Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sailor who returns to shore to enact revenge.
The film is perhaps Denis’s angriest, bleakest work, with even her hero contemplating harming a child at one point. Having met his wealthy adversary’s lover, Raphaëlle (played by the radiant offspring of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, Chiara Mastroianni), Marco lies on the bed and imagines a search party looking for Raphaëlle’s son.
“It is not a dream, but a sort of wish he makes. ‘What can I do to hurt this family?’ ” Denis explains on the phone from Paris. This shift from reality to a dark interiority has thrown some viewers. Some reviewers have called Bastards muddled and hard to follow. But, as Denis says, “I always make perfect sense!
“There used to be a lot of these things, even on TV,” she continues, “but suddenly, when it’s not a straightforward narrative, they don’t understand film. It’s as if there was a regression of the mind suddenly with cinema. Films are ordered to be in order! Well, I don’t enjoy that. I like when it’s also thoughts, dreams, feelings…even bad thoughts, like this one. I don’t care what people think, in a way. If I was to satisfy this logic, I would not make films.”
If some viewers find her films occasionally puzzling, the secret may be that Denis demands (and rewards) multiple viewings. But the filmmaker bristles at the idea of deliberately crafting a film that needs to be seen more than once.
“I think I’m already lucky if people go to see them once, so to ask them to go twice—no, I would never! When making films, especially when it’s like a shriek, you don’t have a hidden plan. You go, you scream, you push… To have a plan like that, it would be terribly immoral. I’m not like that!”
Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12—paired with Bastards throughout its run—deals with the goings-on at a group home for at-risk teenagers. Though it travels through similarly harrowing territory, it is nowhere near as grim as Denis’s work. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as a mumblecore film: expressive, authentic, and fresh. Cretton, patched through the Filmswelike offices in Toronto from an undisclosed location, explains why he does not see himself as part of that movement.
“I’m good friends with Joe Swanberg, and love his movies, and the Duplass brothers, too,” Cretton says. “But my movies are very scripted, and shot-listed, and storyboarded, even though I shoot handheld. I’m not exactly sure what the rules of mumblecore are, but the preproduction and meticulous planning seem to go against what those guys are doing. Which I love, but it frightens me too much. I don’t think that’s my gift, to go in and find something as you’re shooting.”
The rawer moments of Short Term 12—such as an intense slam-poetry rap from one of the film’s more emotionally scarred youths, Marcus, or a heartbreaking children’s story told by the character of Jayden—seem so real that one might take them for expressions of the actors’ own anguish, or perhaps something cribbed from the director’s experiences working at a group home. However, both scenes were very much scripted—although the actor who plays Marcus, Keith Stanfield, helped to “coolify” the rap, Cretton says.
“These scenes came out of the struggle in the writing process to have a realistic way to have characters who don’t want to talk reveal things about themselves,” he explains. “A lot of times, with kids who have experienced things that they don’t want to talk about, those things will come out in their art.”