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.’”