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Jean-Luc Nancy, Abbas Kiarostami, and Claire Denis

Claire Denis’s Vers Nancy (2001)

In 1992, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who passed away on Monday at the age of eighty-one, received a heart transplant. Complications, surgeries, and lymphatic cancer followed. Nancy reflected on his body and its struggles in three extended essays, Corpus (1992), L’intrus (The Intruder, 2000), and Noli me tangere (Touch Me Not, 2003). When New York’s Metrograph revived Claire Denis’s L’intrus (2004) in April, José Teodoro noted that this “mesmerizing narrative essay on trespass and maladaptation” was “a response to, rather than an adaptation of,” Nancy’s work.

Cinema was not central to Nancy’s project, but he did expand an essay on Abbas Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1992) into The Evidence of Film, a book that includes a conversation between the philosopher and the filmmaker. “What Nancy aims to achieve,” wrote Laurent Kretzschmar in his review for Film-Philosophy, “is to define a new essence or form of film that has always been there but only appears now for itself in Kiarostami’s work. The central idea of this new essence is that cinema is fundamentally an art of looking at the world. To develop this unsurprising statement into an innovative path for film theory, Nancy uses two concepts. One is the concept of gaze or way of looking (‘regard’ in French); the other is a conception of the world. These two concepts are inextricably linked since the definition of film, as an art of looking, is only made possible through the understanding of how Nancy conceives the world.”

Kretzschmar found that the book fell short of its aim, but Nancy responded that it was never his intention “to give a theory of film.” Writing for the Wire in 2016, Moinak Biswas suggested that what Nancy was seeking to point out was that “Kiarostami does not primarily seek an image or a sign, he seeks a gaze . . . To seek a gaze, to arrive at the eye to be set on what surrounds us, is for Nancy a fusion of the evidence that things are and that cinema is. For him this is a great renewal of the exhausted culture of the image. Kiarostami is no longer struggling with representation, but giving us presences, affirmations of a world.”

Nancy appeared in a good number of documentaries over the years, including The Ister (2004), in which filmmakers David Barison and Daniel Ross travel up the Danube and have philosophers reflect on a series of lectures Martin Heidegger delivered in 1942. Claire Denis’s Vers Nancy (2001), a short film centering on a conversation between Nancy and an immigrant French woman on a train, has been seen by some reviewers as a prologue to L’intrus. Introducing an issue of Film-Philosophy devoted to the work of Nancy and Denis, Douglas Morrey wrote that the two “have been describing intriguing circles around each other’s work, commenting, admiring, adapting, drawing inspiration from each other’s writings and films in order to pursue their own inimitable trajectories within philosophy and cinema respectively.” Morrey noted that “the figure of the intruder” is “central to the relationship between Nancy and Denis” and that it “might, indeed, provide a figuration of that relationship, as though Nancy’s philosophy had intruded upon Denis’s cinema, and vice versa.”

Writing for Frieze in 2010, Robert Barry mapped the thematic overlap between the works of Nancy and Denis: “The trauma of the encounter, the foreign body; experiencing one’s own self as alien; the gaps and the limits of mutual comprehensibility, and of empathy; this slippage between the physical and the social body—‘It is the subject of all my films, in a way,’ Denis says, ‘but his book helped me to understand what a heart is.’” Scroll down to the bottom of Claire Denis’s page at the European Graduate School and you’ll find videos of lectures that she and Nancy gave—in English—on L’intrus, Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968).

In her 2016 book Towards a Feminist Cinematic Ethics: Claire Denis, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Nancy, Kristin Lené Hole wrote that in the work of the filmmaker and the two philosophers, “our sense of self-sufficiency and discreteness is interrupted in every way by our relatedness to others and to the world. In this vein, both Nancy and Levinas radically think through Heidegger’s claim that being (Dasein) is originally being-with (Mitsein). For Nancy, construing the origin and our being as always plural has meant a deconstructing of the autonomous subject, rendering existence as porous, infected with alterity, and, importantly, always shared.”

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