Claire Denis: Cinéma Courageux

Cécile Ducasse and Claire Denis on the set of Chocolat (1988)

When Claire Denis was in Berlin last month, she mentioned that she and her producer had set up a series of meetings in preparation for her next project. Denis will turn seventy-seven next month, and as Sean Burns observes at WBUR, she “shows no signs of slowing down.” Burns’s piece serves as both a solid primer on Denis’s early work and an overview of Claire Denis: Cinéma Courageux, a series of six films opening today and running through March 22 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Following a brief talk by Sarah Keller, the author of books on Jean Epstein, Maya Deren, and Barbara Hammer, the Coolidge will screen a new restoration of Denis’s first feature, Chocolat (1988), which is also currently playing at Film at Lincoln Center in New York through March 16. Chocolat is the closest Denis has yet come to making an autobiographical film. As the daughter of a civil servant, she grew up in colonial French Africa and has often said that she’s never really felt at home in France. She spent several years working as an assistant director for such directors as Jacques Rivette, Dušan Makavejev, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch before making her debut feature when she was forty-one.

In Chocolat, a woman, France (Mireille Perrier), looks back on her years as a girl (Cécile Ducasse) growing up in French Cameroon with a father (François Cluzet) who comes and goes and a mother (Giulia Boschi) who is drawn to Protée, the “houseboy” played by future Denis regular Isaach de Bankolé. “The camera is fixed a little further away than it will come to be in her later pictures,” writes Burns, “but otherwise, this first feature has all the hallmarks of classic Claire Denis, with forbidden desires sublimated into aggression and her knack for capturing the electric charge of bodies in close proximity. The silent sexual tension is almost unbearable, amplified by the uneasy instability of an empire in decline.” In the New York Times, J. Hoberman notes that the “clarity of Denis’s compositions imbues the pampered isolation in which the family lives with tender regard and implicit horror.”

Denis returned to Africa to shoot two more features, Beau travail (1999) and White Material (2009). Late last year, the former landed at #7 on Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films of all time, having risen from #78 in the previous critics’ poll in 2012. Denis Lavant stars as a French Foreign Legion sergeant who becomes obsessed with a new recruit (Grégoire Colin), and in the essay accompanying our release, Girish Shambu writes that the “power of Denis’s cinema flows from the fact that it fully addresses both mind and body: the whole spectator. Beau travail is, on the one hand, a cerebral film: its narrative is rigorously minimal, it features little expository dialogue, and its elegant ellipses sustain a state of mystery. But at the same time, it is a film with an audiovisual intensity that stirs the senses.”

In White Material, Isabelle Huppert plays Maria, a woman determined to hold on her coffee plantation in an unnamed African country—and to keep it running, even as a civil war rages around her. White Material is Denis’s “toughest work,” writes Amy Taubin, “unsparing with its characters and its audience, a horror film ripped, as they say, from the headlines. Yet like everything Denis has created, it is shot through with tenderness, beauty, and an aching sense of loss.”

Maria is “so afraid that she becomes practically insensible to danger,” Denis told Elena Lazic in a 2019 Sight and Sound interview. “It’s as if, for her, confronting danger was more than courage—it was a way to prove to herself that she is strong and that she can make it all by herself . . . I would say that Maria is a lot like me. She is a lot like me in the way that she is brave because she refuses to face reality.”

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