Talking to Criterion’s Peter Becker in a 2017 episode of Adventures in Moviegoing (good news: the series will return when the Criterion Channel launches on April 8), Barry Jenkins declared that “Claire Denis is the greatest filmmaker on the planet.” The Brooklyn Academy of Music stops just short of complete agreement, hedging its bets a tad, by calling Denis one of “a handful of filmmakers who can credibly lay claim to the title” in its program notes for Strange Desire: The Films of Claire Denis. It’s the largest U.S. retrospective yet, opening on Friday and running through April 9. While she’s in New York, Denis will head to the Metrograph on April 2 to take part in a Q&A following a screening of one of her most challenging films, L’intrus (2004), before introducing her second feature, No Fear, No Die (1990). Then, on April 3, she’ll return to BAM for a Q&A following a screening of her latest work, the confounding yet enthralling High Life (2018).
The title of BAM’s series is well-chosen. Writing for the New York Review of Books last year about the men and women who move through the worlds that Denis conjures, Max Nelson observed: “Desire is both a source of momentum for these characters and a wellspring of confusion and instability . . . They smell one another, admire one another from afar, dance around one another, and in the process lose their footing in the worlds they occupy. To want to get close to another person, for Denis, is to venture into strange and unknown territory.”
Even those who argue that a director’s work should speak for itself will have to admit that an awareness of Denis’s background is part and parcel of even the most basic understanding of her films. Shortly after her birth in Paris in 1946, Denis’s family moved to Africa, where her father worked as a colonial administrator. He was, as Nelson points out, a supporter of the national independence movements “that swept the continent during his daughter’s childhood.” Every two years or so, he moved the family to a new country: Cameroon, Somalia, Djibouti, Burkina Faso. Denis’s experience as a white girl in Africa before returning to France, practically a foreign country in her eyes, when she was fourteen informs her work as one of the great portraitists of marginal lives.
One of the best pieces on Denis’s life and work before she made her first feature, Chocolat (1988), when she was forty-two is Leo Goldsmith’s contribution to the 2009 symposium Claire Denis: The Art of Seduction at Reverse Shot. Goldsmith sketches the outlines of the political and economic conditions in France in the early and mid-1970s and their impact on the French film industry as a whole, and more specifically, on the atmosphere at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC), where Denis began her studies in 1972. It was there that she met the likes of Philippe Garrel and Jacques Rivette, “the only one” of the French New Wave directors “who seemed absolutely incredible to me.” In 1990, Denis and renowned critic Serge Daney profiled Rivette in an episode of the remarkable French television series Cinéma de notre temps.
Denis’s appearance as an uncredited extra in Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) led to a string of jobs as an assistant director. She worked with Dušan Makavejev on Sweet Movie (1974), with Costa-Gavras on Hanna K. (1983), and perhaps most crucially, with Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) and with Jim Jarmusch on Down by Law (1986). Goldsmith admits that “while some influence from those filmmakers upon her later style and (especially) production model is all but inevitable, the act of tracing the impact of this period on Denis's films is a highly speculative exercise.” But that doesn’t keep him from connecting a few dots.
Which brings us to Chocolat, in which a woman named France (Mireille Perrier) returns to Cameroon, reflects on her childhood there, and realizes that the tension she sensed between her mother (Giulia Boschi) and the family’s houseboy (Isaach De Bankolé) was charged with sexual attraction. “Like an Edith Wharton novel,” wrote Darren Hughes in 2005, “Chocolat appropriates the conventions of a romance plot to comment on restrictive social structures, specifically the complexities of a colonial system that simultaneously dehumanizes and hypersexualizes the colonized, while also degrading the colonizer. It’s brilliantly executed—a story told completely in small but significant gestures.”
While cinematographer Robert Alazraki shot Chocolat and Pascal Marti would shoot No Fear, No Die, starring De Bankolé and Alex Descas as Africans staging illegal cock fights in France, the camera operator on both films was Agnès Godard, who would go on to work as Denis’s cinematographer on every feature from the Rivette documentary through 2017’s Let the Sunshine In. Denis tends to cultivate collaborations over a series of projects, turning, for example, to Tindersticks lead singer Stuart Staples eight times now for a film’s score. Descas appears in I Can’t Sleep (1994), a serial killer thriller set against the backdrop of Parisian nightlife, and Grégoire Colin and Alice Houri play siblings in both U.S. Go Home (1994) and Nénette et Boni (1996).
Colin also appears in Beau travail (1999), a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and something of an international breakthrough for Denis. Denis Lavant plays a French Foreign Legion officer in Djibouti whose unwanted attraction to a young soldier (Colin) leads to an act of cruelty—and a court martial. “Aren’t Denis’s heroes among the most beautiful, complicated men cinema’s offered since Nicholas Ray’s heyday?” asked Reverse Shot editors Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert in the introduction to their symposium. They suggest that “it’s not hard to consider such actors as Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankolé, and Grégoire Colin the transplanted European heirs to James Dean, Farley Granger, Christopher Plummer—men without pasts, but on missions. Colin himself perhaps put it best: ‘She films male bodies as if she were a homosexual man.’”
Opening up a conversation at Slant with Jason Bellamy in 2009, Ed Howard called Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), in which Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle are driven to cannibalism by their sexual desires, “quite possibly her most challenging and unsettling film, both utterly typical of her approach—quiet, patiently paced, enigmatic in its characterization and plotting—and yet also a true outlier in her career.” Discussing Denis’s work with Nicolas Rapold and Madeline Whittle on last week’s Film Comment Podcast, Nick Pinkerton recalls seeing Trouble Every Day for the first time, hitting up a local bar for a double shot, and then heading straight back to the theater for a second viewing.
In Friday Night (2002), a woman (Valérie Lemercier) is ensnared in a traffic jam on her way across Paris to move in with her boyfriend when a stranger (Vincent Lindon) emerges and the two of them end up taking a room. Not only is there very little dialogue, but as Denis told Aimé Ancian in Senses of Cinema, she and her collaborator Emmanuèle Bernheim, who wrote the book, decided to do away with the voiceover they’d drafted as well. And “working without a safety net forced me to have absolute faith in the cinema.” Introducing another interview with Denis for Senses in 2005, Damon Smith called L’intrus, in which a sixty-eight-year-old man (Michel Subor) travels the world in search of a heart transplant, Denis’s “most mysterious, enthralling and strangely invigorating work since Beau travail” and “an allusive memory-puzzle of sorts, dreamlike, beguiling and visually poetic.” Towards Mathilde (2005), focusing on choreographer Mathilde Monnier, followed, and writing for Slant, Travis Mackenzie Hoover found that “Denis manages to match her in a star directorial performance that expands the boundaries of what a documentary can be.”
Three years passed before Denis returned with 35 Shots of Rum (2008), an homage to Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) centering on the relationship between a Parisian train driver (Alex Descas) and his daughter (Mati Diop) as she prepares to leave home. The film is “dear to me, maybe for its modesty,” Denis told Kevin B. Lee in the Notebook. At the same time, though, “working on a project like this, about family rituals, maybe it's immodest in a sense, even pretentious, to believe that I can express something that other people can understand through those little rituals. Because it was clear to me watching Ozu. Each time it's clear to me that he has connected the industry of cinema with the private moment.”
A year later in the Notebook, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky was calling White Material (2009), in which Isabelle Huppert plays a French woman fighting to hold onto her coffee plantation in Africa even as a civil war approaches, “an exploded chamber drama. A Haneke-style family unit (complete with a brutally bored son) holed up mentally, emotionally, economically and geographically encounters various interlopers while fighting to preserve a bourgeois sense of ‘integrity.’”
With Bastards (2013), Denis reunited with Vincent Lindon, who plays a ship captain who returns to land to see to the aftermath of a terrible family tragedy. “Confusion is essential to this torrid atmosphere,” writes Jesse Cataldo at Slant, “and the combination of bewildered characters and messy situations creates a feverish climate which recalls both the elliptical obliqueness of The Intruder and the dreamy tone of Friday Night.”
In 2017, Denis worked for the first time with Juliette Binoche, who carries Let the Sunshine In as an artist juggling a good number of lovers and frustrated by the seeming futility of holding out hope for a future with any of them. “It’s a film intelligently attuned both to the endless possibilities of what can happen when two people are in the same space together—a bed, a bar, a restaurant, a car—and to the ever expanding and contracting gulf between them,” writes 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson. “Let the Sunshine In is Denis’s most voluble movie and, despite the emotional turmoil its heroine endures, among her gentlest.”
In High Life, Binoche takes on a role originally slated for Patricia Arquette. The recasting is just one of the many stops and starts the project has gone through during the fifteen years that it’s been on Denis’s mind. In essence, it’s a prison movie set on a spaceship hurtling toward a black hole on an ill-defined mission to find an alternative source of energy. Robert Pattinson plays the lone member of the crew allowed to refuse to participate in Dr. Dibs’s (Binoche) mad-scientist sexual experiments—until she steals a sperm sample and leaves him, the sole adult survivor, with a baby daughter. High Life, “surely one of the most singular and uncompromising films of its kind,” as Jordan Cronk puts it at Reverse Shot, begins rolling out into U.S. theaters on April 5.
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