I'll be posting the five pieces that I wrote last month for the PopMatters 100 Essential Directors series here over the next week or so. First up: Claire Denis. Comments/quibbles always gratefully received.
Three key films: Beau Travail (1999), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009)
Underrated film: The Intruder (2004)
“Your worst enemies are hiding inside. Hiding in the shadows. Hiding in your heart.” Denis’s most obscure and inscrutable film deeply divided audiences and critics, some viewers considering it to be a profound treatise on identity, life and death, and others attacking it as an impenetrable tone poem that fails to add up despite scattered striking images. Initially baffling it might be, but The Intruder is a movie that, even more than Denis’s other films, richly repays and rewards repeat viewings. Inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s book, the film is at once a metaphysical exploration, a travelogue, and a quest narrative of sorts, tracking its “heartless” protagonist, Trebor (Michel Subor), as he journeys from Jura to Pusan in South Korea and finally to Tahiti, undergoing a heart transplant and attempting to seek out his estranged son. As a story in which, in Denis’s words, “everything is broken,” The Intruder doesn’t need to add up, and for all its opacity, the film remains an indelible, haunting experience - a trip, in two senses, at least.
Unforgettable moment: Endings in Denis’s cinema are invariably memorable and surprising, and none more so than Denis Lavant’s extraordinary acrobatic solo dance at the conclusion of Beau Travail, a moment that at once underscores the movie’s exploration of the male body and space and blows it all to pieces. Previously depicted as the controlled military man, Lavant’s Galoup lets rip with a frankly astonishing display of moves in this scene: twirling, flailing, leaping, rolling on the floor, and finally propelling himself out of the frame. “I wanted to show that Galoup could escape himself,” Denis has commented. And you’ll never hear Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” again without seeing these images.
The Legend (1948-)
“I always freak out when I hear people opposing sensation to story-telling,” Claire Denis has said. “A great story-teller always gives you that sense of warmth or cold… [Sensation and story-telling] are not opposed … Why deprive a film of what belongs to cinema?” Perhaps more consistently than any other contemporary filmmaker, Denis’s movies work to make sensation into story-telling, and vice versa. Elliptical and fragmentary, sometimes oblique to the point of opacity, Denis’s films re-write the rule-book in terms of narrative content and characterisation, her stories often emerging through an intense focus on the bodies of her actors and a moody, sensuous evocation of places and spaces. The result is a cinematic style that, in its combination of discretion and ellipsis with moments of confrontational, sometimes brutal directness, is one of the most distinctive in modern French cinema.
Born in Paris, Denis was raised in colonial West Africa, where her father was a civil servant; she went on to study at the IDHEC, the French film school, and served as an assistant to directors including Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. This background finds its way into her films in ways that vary from the obvious to the indirect. Elements of autobiography would certainly seem to inform her debut film, Chocolat (1988), in which a white French woman returns to Cameroon, where she recalls her childhood as the daughter of a regional administrator and her relationship with the family’s servant, Proteé (Isaach de Bankolé). Issues of “race” and the fallout of colonialism remain pertinent in Denis’s cinema, and in its exploration of the experiences of white characters in Africa (Beau Travail and White Material) and African and Caribbean immigrants in France (No Fear, No Die ; 35 Shots of Rum ) her work can certainly be seen to engage with the complexities and uncertainties of our post-colonial world.
But Denis’s movies are too subtle and impressionistic for crude polemics around racial politics. Rather, her films approach such issues in more abstract terms, charting what the director herself calls “movement[s] towards the unknown Other and toward the unknown in other people.” Indeed, the notion of “movement” is particularly key to Denis’s cinema which brings a choreographic sensibility to its presentation of bodies at rest and in motion, and also makes spectacular use of rock and pop music ranging from Neil Young to the Beach Boys and the Commodores. An invigorating tactility, an effort to make her movies felt in the body of the spectator, characterises her film-making practice.
Denis frequently works with the same colleagues, including actors (de Bankolé, Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas, Nicholas Duvauchelle), musicians (the British band Tindersticks) and the cinematographer Agnés Godard. The contributions of such collaborators clearly play a part in the distinctive ambience that her films create even as her work moves from the gore of the horror film Trouble Every Day (2001) to the warmth and sensitivity of an Ozu-inspired family drama (35 Shots). But what defines Denis’s cinema most is the liberating amount of interpretive space that it gives to the audience. In the words of Ryland Walker Knight, Denis “captures life’s richness by observing behaviour, and then lets us develop the picture.” Ultimately, it is nothing less than the mystery and materiality of human experience which is conveyed with such bracing insight and feeling in Denis’s dynamic work.