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Good Work: Claire Denis’s Early Career

Good Work: Claire Denis's Early Career

There is a scene at the end of Claire Denis’s Chocolat in which three African men, working at an airport in Cameroon, load luggage into the belly of a plane. They ride the luggage cart out to a far end of the airport for a smoke break, chatting all the while. The camera shoots them from some remove, slowly moving in to a tighter shot as they take refuge from the ensuing rain under an overpass. One man takes a leak, and they all continue talking, but we don’t hear their conversation above the sound of Abdullah Ibrahim’s smooth, buoyant afro-jazz score.

Chocolat was Denis’s first film, and as such is often regarded as atypical of her work generally, but this scene falls in line with many similar final scenes in the films of her subsequent career. Nearly always slightly distanced from, if not completely unmotivated by, the foregoing narrative, sequences such as these seem to suggest a kind of liberation from the often violent emotional and sexual tension that precedes them. They suggest something—a sensibility, an emotion, a persistent narrative line—that the limited film narrative cannot itself fully contain or account for: Alice Houri’s plaintive enjoyment of a salvaged cigarette butt in Nénette et Boni; Denis Lavant’s superlative solo dance to Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” in Beau travail; Béatrice Dalle’s euphoric dogsled ride in L’Intrus. In this light, Chocolat is not atypical of Denis at all, and its final sequence presages many such scenes in the director’s later work.

This finale is notable also for its resemblance to the work of another filmmaker: Jim Jarmusch. The trio of men, the laid-back camaraderie, the cool, casual laziness of everyday life made meaningful with just the right music: transported to Louisiana and transposed to black-and-white with audible dialogue, this could easily be one of many similar, lengthy sequence shots from Jarmusch’s Down by Law, the direction of which Denis assisted only two years earlier.

For those interested in Denis’s work, the approximate fifteen-year period of her career when she worked as an assistant director prior to her directorial debut, is particularly useful for both its length and its pedigree. Click here to read all of Leo Goldsmith’s essay on Claire Denis’s early career as assistant director, “Good Work.”

And click here to read other selections from Reverse Shot’s new symposium, Claire Denis: The Art of Seduction.

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