The IFC Center in New York City recently ran a retrospective of French director Claire Denis’s laudable films—the most expansive retrospective of her work that NYC has ever seen—to commemorate the theatrical release of “White Material” this Friday. On the occasion, we have also decided to look back at some of her most noteworthy features.
In a Claire Denis film, skin is always a character. Whether it be the leathery, rugged skin of Michel Subor‘s aged body in “The Intruder,” which Denis examines in leisurely takes, or the way that skin serves as a kind of titillation in the vampiric horror film “Trouble Every Day,” the beauty found in a Denis frame is natural and imperfect, and skin becomes a medium to express this. It’s the blemishes on Tricia Vessey‘s body in ‘Trouble,’ and the moles and warts on Subor’s back, that give Denis’ images texture. She would have no interest in the “clean and clear and under control” skin some advertisements promise.
But there’s a greater reason why skin is so emphasized, and it has to do with race. As a French woman born in Paris but raised in colonial Africa, Denis is fascinated (and saddened) by the friction between whites and blacks, which she’s considered throughout her career. You can track this theme from her autobiographical debut, 1988’s “Chocolat” to 1994’s “I Can’t Sleep,” a subdued procedural which examines the hardships of the immigrant experience in Paris, to 2000’s “Beau Travail,” a re-imagining of Melville‘s “Billy Budd,” which maps out a battle of white egos against the harsh terrain of Djibouti, to this year’s “White Material,” something of a career summation and a return to Africa, though this time the location is unnamed.
“White Material” is Denis coming full circle, her more narrative-driven early work (especially “Chocolat,” its closest cousin within her filmography) clashing with the abstract rhythms and impressionistic imagery of her more recent films, such as the inscrutable “Intruder.” If 2009’s “35 Shots of Rum,” a moody, meditative family drama and contender for the best film of last year, found this great artist settling into her old age (she’s now 62) and embracing her love of Yasujiro Ozu (it is, after all, something of a remake of Ozu’s “Late Spring“), “White Material” shows she still has some fight left in her, enough to confound and enthrall in equal measure.
Though born in France, Claire Denis spent much of her childhood in Africa; her father was stationed there as a French Official, and she’s said in interviews that her family moved often so they could come to understand the “geography” of their region. Denis’s debut, “Chocolat,” uses these experiences; it’s the only film Denis herself considers autobiographical. It traces the early life of an adolescent girl, very significantly named France, whose upbringing bears similarity to Denis’ own. A framing device sandwiches the film between two present-day sequences: a prologue and stellar epilogue involving France as an adult visiting Cameroon after years away. In between, we’re thrust into Northern French Cameroon, where seven-year-old France lives with her parents and “houseboy” Protee (Isaach De Bankolé). Denis focuses on the relationship between Protee and France’s mother (Giulia Boschi), as seen through the young girl’s eyes—a relationship complicated by racial and class tensions. France herself observes, but not passively: she learns. Most significant is the knowledge her father imparts to her, describing the horizon as a line that is “there and not there” (a metaphor for the line which separates race and class). Many have praised Denis’ latest, “White Material,” but its shared themes are explored with a greater depth and clarity here. [B+]
“I Can’t Sleep” (1994)
In the hands of near any other director, “I Can’t Sleep” would’ve been boilerplate mystery-procedural fare. In Claire Denis‘, it’s a deceptively complex study of sin’s blow-back, its consequences on the sinful and those innocents caught in the crossfire. It’s also a scathing commentary on the poor conditions for immigrants in the ghettos of Paris, developing its mosaic of characters (many played by Denis regulars like Alex Descas and Béatrice Dalle) over a leisurely two hours. Daiga (Katia Golubeva), a tall, wispy Lithuanian beauty, moves in with relatives in Paris. She doesn’t speak much French, and when a radio announcer warns of the “Granny Killer,” she doesn’t understand. But we do. She’s our entry point; we feel just as uprooted as she does in this seedy place, and our understanding of her displacement pays off two-fold when it lends insight into the mind of the killer, an immigrant who shares her frustrations and feelings of alienation. Denis is too smart to create a film rote with cynicism; there are no heroes in “I Can’t Sleep,” but the city fights its own demons, “grannies” take up martial arts to defend themselves, and those with any shred of humanity reach out to others, often in vain. Denis understands that people sin, but knows that they also regret. The title, “I Can’t Sleep,” may suggest that even the gravest offenders lose sleep over their transgressions. [B+]
“Beau Travail” (2000)
This is the imposing masterwork of Claire Denis‘ illustrious career—an adaptation of Herman Melville‘s “Billy Budd” which relocates the story’s action to a French legionnaire camp in Northern Africa where jealousy and braggadocio inform an intense power struggle and elevate a classic parable to the level of Greek tragedy. In the opening scene, the film’s two protagonists, Sentain (Gregoire Colin) and Galoup (Denis Lavant), circle each other like predators; the soldiers are established as silent rivals through intense physical gestures: penetrating stares, arched backs and clenched fists. Denis’ surreal rendering of their harsh environment blurs the line between masculinity and an unspoken homoerotic tension, just as it makes ambiguous the separation between regimented exercise and interpretive dance. This director’s cinema is all about suggestion—erotic tension abounds but there’s no release. Denis focuses not on action, but inaction here: the soldiers rehearse tirelessly for a battle that never comes, and that hypothetical threat, looming in some potential future, infuses “Beau Travail” with a wellspring of unnerving tension. But Denis’ interests extend beyond the blows traded between her two brooding ciphers; setting the film in Djibouti hints at the pointed critique of “Chocolat,” her exceptionally underrated debut: that dark-skinned people often become casualties to the senseless whims and conflicts of white egotists. [A]
“Trouble Every Day” (2002)
Unfortunately the title “The Hunger” is taken, but it does a solid job emphasizing the carnal rage with which Denis’ sojourn into more horrific territory is concerned. Along the French countryside, a curvy animalistic nymphomaniac (Béatrice Dalle) can’t help but devour her lovers, held back by the dutiful concern of her male paramour. At the same time, two Americans (Vincent Gallo and uber-cute and underused Tricia Vessey) struggle to understand how they’ve arrived at this place of sensual longing and flesh-eating scientifically, while at the same time struggling with how their passions seem both exactly the same, and, because of a lack of compatibility, completely opposite to their interests. “Trouble Every Day” is a gory test for the average arthouse consumer, but it continues Denis’ sensuous obsession with the matters of the flesh and the chasm that separates even the most dedicated of lovers. It also boasts a solid score by the Tindersticks. [B]
“35 Shots of Rum” (2009)
Working class tensions play out in silence; the scene set by the raindrops on the windowsill, the braying of the local train, the click-clack of glasses filled with merry drink. In this effort, Denis observes the curious, world-less formation of a family brought together partially by blood, partially by employment, but also with the love and generosity of those around you. “35 Shots Of Rum” details the transition, from the ones you love to the ones you will love, when you realize what exactly are the ties that bind. Love is not enough, argues the wonderfully humanist film, but there is beauty in finding a support system, and establishing your niche with hands held, hips swayed, and eyes locked. [A]
“The Intruder” (2005) Perhaps her most elliptical and sparse, “L’intrus” is a masterwork of Claire Denis’ cryptic and haunted style. Centering on a 70-year-old man with heart problems who seeks a transplant, the clipped picture plays out like a feverish dream. The gorgeously shot and framed film (by frequent cinematographic collaborator Agnes Godard) eschews most narrative constraints to burrow inside the subconscious, blurring dream, memory, and waking-life into an utterly fascinating and breathtaking tactile experience. Enthralling as a largely wordless piece of cinema that radiates like the feeling of hot breath, the picture unfortunately loses its way in the third act, when the dying and inscrutable man (Michel Subor) — intriguingly always dreaming of violence — goes in search of a son sired years before in Tahiti. The sustained purity of breathless cinema, captured beautifully in the forest near the French-Swiss border where the man lives, evaporates and we’re lead into a strange last third that looks and feels nothing like this moody metaphysical exploration of questioning the notions of the heart, both literal and metaphorical. It’s a puzzling ending, but doesn’t entirely diminish ravishing opaqueness of what came before. [B+]
“U.S. Go Home” (1994) [TV]
Claire Denis’ contribution to the 1994 French TV series “All the Boys and Girls of Their Generation”—which gathered together, as its title suggests, the most promising French filmmakers of the time—is to this writer’s mind very much of a piece with Olivier Assayas’ submission to the omnibus project, “Cold Water.” As the series requests, both films relate their directors’ adolescence to the music of their youth (the ‘60s), and both hit their stride in filming long, near-wordless party sequences set to American classic rock favorites and deep cuts. (There may even be some crossover in their set lists.) But where Assayas’ looks primarily at a fissure between the younger and older generations (an overarching theme for the “Punk-rock Auteur’s” career) Denis’ is a kind of quasi-sequel to her debut, “Chocolat,” engaging with the more complicated social fissure she was confronted with in moving from Africa to the outskirts of Paris— the western influence of residual U.S. troops and the friction their occupancy causes among native Parisians. The American music echoes that friction, and the young French protagonists’ struggle for individual freedoms through sexual expression becomes a dual theme with France’s desire to be self-dependent. At barely an hour, “U.S. Go Home” also plays as a dry-run for Denis’s 1997 film “Nenette and Boni,” which features each of its three principals (Gregoire Colin, Alice Houri and Vincent Gallo) in very similar roles. [B]
“Friday Night” (2003)
It’s easy to look at “Vendredi Soir” and mistake it for a slight piece of work, and after the lush tragedy of “Beau Travail” and the dark cannibalism of “Trouble Every Day,” it’s undeniably a change of pace, and possibly Denis‘ lightest, funniest work to date. But in this case, ‘light’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘frothy.’ It follows Laure (a wonderful Valerie Lemercier), who’s about to move in with her boyfriend, but gets stuck in traffic during a transport strike. She picks up a hitchhiker (Vincent Lindon, the lead in “Pour Elle,” the original version of this week’s Paul Haggis thriller “The Next Three Days“), and the two almost immediately develop a very, very deep connection. What’s particularly impressive (and what separates it from the likes of “Before Sunrise,” which is essentially dialogue-driven) is how little is said in the course of the film — it’s an almost impossibly intimate, detailed film, revolving around little gestures and snatched images familiar to anyone who’s had the kind of one-night-only connection shown here, the kind that you never quite forget. It’s got to be one of the all-time great city movies too, capturing a Paris that’s as suffocating as it is vibrant. Denis and regular DoP Agnes Godard (who, as strong as Yves Cape is, was much missed on “White Material“) shoot the hell out of it, and the score’s gorgeous as well. It might be a minor work, but if every director’s minor-key films were as good as this, it’d be a wonderful thing. [A-]
“White Material” (2010) A thorny picture that is as imperfect as it is enthralling, Denis’ first cinematic trip back to Africa in its racial/geopolitical vagueness is frustrating yet engrossing. Isabelle Huppert plays a haughty, stubborn French coffee plantation owner who refuses to leave her home despite a raging civil war upending the unnamed African country in which they reside. With the country in chaos crumbling around them, her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) tries to sell her plantation behind her back and meanwhile she’s harboring a deposed African revolutionary (Isaach De Bankolé) now wanted very much dead. After an encounter with some child rebels on the wrong end of a machete, her humiliated son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shaves his head and begins to lose his mind while Huppert’s Maria Vial white goddess character refuses to budge or change her way of life. While clearly a picture about a white landowner hiding a black fugitive in the middle of a African uprising is allegorical of something, what that something is exactly remains almost irritatingly elusive. To her credit, Denis is clearly more interested in character than she is in context, but the picture’s refusal to comment on its framework — not mention a confounding violent conclusion — does sometimes feel like a dubious proposition. While it doesn’t all add up, “White Material” is still very much moody and disquieting film. [B]
–Sam Mac, Gabe Toro, Oliver Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez