You are watching a film. Maybe at home, maybe in the movie theatre. You’re enjoying it. Or not. “Did you like it?” your friend will ask. “Meh,” you’ll answer. You’ll go on your way and forget about it. Except sometimes you can’t. In the midst of mind-numbing  blockbusters and painful indies, one film will come and hit you hard. And, yes, maybe your life will not change, but that thing your brain has been chasing, or trying to ignore for a while, will finally be in front of you. But the act of watching is not as a straightforward as it sounds. We watch actors impersonating characters but what we are really looking at is our values systems and power relations dramatized for our viewing pleasure. Or discomfort.

Claire Denis’ Les Salauds or (Bastards) and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la Farme or (Tom at the Farm) are the directors’ first forays into the noir genre, and maybe this is why they might feel unfinished or incomplete. I think this is true for Dolan, while those more familiar with Claire Denis’ oeuvre will be aware that the feeling of unfinished-ness is a defining trait for most of her films. Aside from their artistic merits, what hit me was the directors’ willingness to show us a world where violence and desire are stripped of any reassuring societal norm and returned to us in all their disturbing glory.

Les Salauds tells the story of Marco (Vincent Lindon), a ship captain returning to Paris in search of vengeance: his brother has committed suicide, his niece has been brutally raped and he is ready to punish who he believes is responsible for the destruction of his family. In Tom at the Farm, Dolan directs and stars as Tom, who travels to the bleak Canadian countryside to attend his partner Guillaume’s funeral, meeting for the first time Guillaume’s unwitting mother and violent brother. Both films’ beautiful cinematography is drenched in yellow tones. In Bastards it is Parisian street lights at night, in Tom at the Farm it is the sickly quality of light of the landscape, matched by Dolan’s bleached hair. In both films, corn becomes a symbol of violence. This is a direct link to Faulkner’s novel, ‘Sanctuary’, the inspiration behind Les Salauds. The cornfields surrounding the titular farm instead provide the background for one of the film’s first outbursts of violence.

The opening scenes of Les Salauds set the tone for the rest of the movie. In it we see Lola Cretòn’s Justine walking alone at night, naked except for her heels, blood on her thigh. Something has been done to her, but her walk is steady and her eyes are clear. Denis reverses the trope of women as victims: the powerless mother, the abused daughter, the acquiescent kept-woman are not just objects of desire, falling prey to violence. They are victims and perpetrators, accomplices and guardians, Erinyes and Eumenides. As the story proceeds it becomes evident that in the world of Les Salauds, power – either holding it or craving it – has corrupted everyone.

In Tom at the Farm we are not given enough back-story to establish why Tom is drawn to his dead boyfriend’s abusive brother Frank, or why he doesn’t leave as soon as Frank starts torturing him. We don’t know, but perhaps we understand it, even if we’d rather not. It’s that ugly part of ourselves that makes us want power, other people’s bodies, or their undivided attention. And when wanting is born out of shame we yearn to be punished. It’s desire at its worst, a reckless need for more. To see and feel more, no matter what it costs us.

These films are challenging our domesticated gaze. As viewers we are trained to individuate the main character, the hero, and to root for him. But we can’t do that in Bastards because as the story unfolds we discover that everyone in the movie is rotten, everyone is a bastard. And we can’t do it in Tom at the Farm either, because not even grief seems to redeem characters that at their core are irreparably damaged. They are not grieving, they are seething with rage, towards others and themselves.

The desire lines rippling through the stories are tainted by violence and made all the more powerful because of it. They are stronger than any surviving moral or rational directive. The notion of wanting – whether it’s sex, power or punishment – is the only imperative these people respond to. As a result, the demarcation between victims and executioners is blown into pieces, along with our chance of catharsis. Still, we can’t look away. We will keep watching so that we can see ourselves and look at our collective narratives and psychosis from a safe distance. We are not simply watching a heightened version of reality, we are feeding on it.

 

Vittoria Caradonna