‘Bastards’: Superbly made horror film studies family nightmare

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 Creton).

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.

“Bastards” (3 stars)

Claire Denis directs this cryptic and ultimately horrifying study of a dark family nightmare. We won’t find out the particulars for a while, but it begins with a sea captain (Vincent Lindon) returning home and renting an apartment across the hall from a prominent businessman and his mistress. What follows is skillfully assembled, if grim. In French, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, violence, subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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