Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
A tough spell for French cinema, this past week or so, as three large figures died: the 86-year-old actor Michel Subor, the far-too-young (37) actor Gaspard Ulliel, and the curious director Jean-Jacques Beineix, who never equaled his early success with Diva and Betty Blue, dead at 75.
I am reviving a couple of reviews, both originally published in The Herald, that include some of the actors’ notable work: Claire Denis’ nasty (and I mean that in the best possible sense) 2013 film Bastards, which featured Subor in a powerful role, and Andre Téchiné’s haunting Strayed (2003), which showcased Ulliel after he’d appeared in Brotherhood of the Wolf and before he starred in A Very Long Engagement and Hannibal Rising. I don’t say much in either review about these two, except to note that I found Ulliel “not an appealing performer, but maybe that’s part of the point.” I do think it’s very much the point that Ulliel’s looks were vaguely feral and unformed then; it works perfectly for that movie. Subsequent films established his appeal.
Subor played the lead role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, acted in Hitchcock’s Topaz, and had an amazing run with Denis toward the end of his career, starting with Beau Travail, in which his character shared the same name as the Godard character, and continuing with L’intrus (or The Intruder, a strange and fascinating piece built around Subor’s image) and White Material. Indelibly, Subor is the offscreen narrator of Jules and Jim, a major performance and a crucial presence in one of the cinema’s central movies. He died in a car accident.
If Alfred Hitchcock were still alive and exploring 21st-century modes of moviemaking, would he come up with something like Bastards? The Master of Suspense changed with the times, and maybe it’s not too far-fetched to imagine him experimenting in the style operating here: a terse, elliptical, and ultimately horrifying method that withholds as much information as it doles out.
This thought passed through my mind halfway through Bastards, but make no mistake: This movie is definitely the work of French filmmaker Claire Denis (White Material), whose cryptic approach only adds to the film’s creeping sense of unease.
The picture begins by contemplating a wall of rain, as though preparing us for how hard it will be to see and understand what’s going on. A man commits suicide on this rainy night, and his brother-in-law Marco (Vincent Lindon) quits his job as a ship’s captain in order to come home and sort things out for his deeply damaged sister (Julie Bataille) and niece (Lola Créton). Marco moves into a huge, empty apartment across the hall from a prominent businessman (Michel Subor), who lives with trophy mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) and their young son. The hints that emerge about this world grow darker as the movie goes on, and in fact are about as dark as a family nightmare can get.
With his blunt masculinity, Lindon raises our hopes that his rugged loner can rescue the disaster. That’s what rugged loners do in movies. But Denis is aware of how the power stacks up in this situation, so the resolution is probably going to be closer to Vertigo than Rear Window. And for a movie obsessed with how difficult it is to see the truth (and how reluctant people are to acknowledge it), it is fitting that surveillance cameras and other recording devices are an almost-unnoticed fact of life—culminating in the last, terrible sequence.
A final piece of evidence, knowingly recorded for a camera, confirms our worst fears. Bastards is a skillfully assembled mosaic, the work of a filmmaker fully in control of her talents, and despite the grim material we can at least find some satisfaction in how well the tale has been told. But Claire Denis sure doesn’t make it easy on us.
With so much recent recollection of World War II, it might seem odd to describe Strayed as a World War II movie. In some ways it is, at least technically, a film about the war, but in other ways … well, read on.
The film is set in an unspecified area of western France, just after the fall of Paris to the Germans. On a road choked with fleeing refugees, a war widow, Odile (Emmanuelle Beart), travels with her two children. The road is strafed and bombed by a German plane, and Odile’s car is destroyed (a very realistic and violent sequence). The three run into the forest for cover, accompanied by a young man who seems very street-smart.
He is Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), a mysterious and almost feral teenager who can nevertheless help Odile survive. They come across an isolated mansion, its owners having evacuated. Yvan breaks into the house, and the four people create a family unit. Odile is reluctant at first; she’s a proper schoolteacher, and Yvan is something of a wild child (he can’t read, and he appears sexually inexperienced). But Odile is eventually swayed by his resourcefulness, and perhaps by the hint of sexual tension between them.
The remainder of the movie takes place in and around the mansion, with no more battle scenes and only a couple of stray soldiers passing through. Yet somehow this domestic drama does relate to the war, or at least the way war throws people out of their proscribed paths in life.
Director Andre Téchiné is one of the finest French filmmakers when he’s on his game. Strayed has some affinities with his masterpiece of youth, Wild Reeds, as even the titles suggest. His focus in Strayed is not only on the developing attraction between Odile and Yvan, but also how this affects Odile’s 13-year-old son, well played by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet. The boy needs Yvan as a father figure, but he becomes increasingly aware of Yvan’s erratic, untrustworthy character (which Odile doesn’t see, but the audience does).
Téchiné is very good at drawing out situations in which unspoken things burn quietly beneath the surface. Between its opening and its climactic scenes, Strayed is almost entirely made of such unspoken things. We learn more from the way Odile teaches Yvan how to read than from anything they say overtly to each other.
Emmanuelle Beart, the flawless beauty best known in the States for doing duty opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, is terrific as usual. The combination of her sensual looks and her character’s uptight demeanor is suspenseful in and of itself. Shaved-headed Gaspard Ulliel is not an appealing performer, but maybe that’s part of the point.
We have no sense of time passing during this idyll, or where other people in the world are. Strayed describes a disconnected dream…until reality and war come to break the spell.
January 21, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.